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The Lost Letters of the Greek Alphabet

Early Greek alphabet painted on the body of an Attic black-figure cup
Early Greek alphabet painted on the body of an Attic black-figure cup. Today, there are missing letters in the Greek alphabet. Credit: Marsyas / Wikimedia Commons CC-BY-SA-2.5

The Greek alphabet has changed in many ways over the course of its existence. This is hardly surprising, given that the Greeks have been using it for nearly three millennia. One way in which it has changed is that some letters that used to exist in the Greek alphabet are now missing. Which letters were these, and what do we know about them?

The first letters of the Greek alphabet

To start, let us establish how the Greek alphabet acquired its letters in the first place. According to ancient Greek historians, the Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet after the arrival of a Phoenician prince named Cadmus. Archaeology confirms that this occurred at some point in the ninth century BCE.

The Phoenician alphabet was composed of only consonants. When the Greeks adopted it, they modified it to include vowels as well. This was a major step forward in the development of writing.

According to Plutarch, a Greek historian of the first century CE, there were originally sixteen Greek letters. However, Hyginus, an earlier writer, reports that there were originally eighteen.

In reality, it appears that neither version is correct. Physical evidence in the form of ancient inscriptions reveals that the earliest Greek inscriptions made use of all twenty-two letters in the Phoenician alphabet. However, four of these were for sounds which did not exist in Greek, so they were modified into vowels.

Perhaps this is where Hyginus’ idea of eighteen original letters comes from, being a distorted memory of the eighteen original consonants. In any case, the total number of letters in the Greek alphabet increased over time.

Why are there some missing letters in the Greek alphabet?

Some of the letters used in ancient Greek inscriptions are simply not in the modern Greek alphabet. Why is this? Simply put, the reason is that the Greek language itself has evolved over time, and the alphabet exists to comply to the needs of the language rather than vice versa.

Additionally, different dialects of the Greek language existed within the Greek world at the same time. Therefore, the needs of each dialect would not necessarily be covered by the same letters.

In the late fifth century BCE, the alphabet used by the Ionian Greeks became the official, standardized alphabet of Athens. Over the following century, it then replaced the local alphabets of other Greek regions. By that time, the dialect of the Ionian Greeks was such that their alphabet did not make use of all the letters that had once been in use. Rather, their alphabet used just twenty-four letters. Hence, what were the letters that the Greek alphabet used to have but no longer does?


One of the most famous lost letters of the Greek alphabet is Digamma. This had the following form:


It is superficially very similar to the modern F, but the sound was completely different. It was essentially the modern w sound. In fact, the original name for this letter was ‘wau’, taken directly from the Phoenician name for this letter.


Another lost letter is San. This had the following form:


Like Digamma, this looks almost identical to a more familiar letter. In this case, it looks just like the modern letter M. However, like with Digamma, the sound indicated by this ancient letter was completely different. Unlike the modern M, the ancient San, or Ϻ, was used to indicate an s sound. This fell out of use in favor of the alternative letter Sigma, written as Σ.


Another letter that is no longer in use is Koppa, which had the following written form:


This is similar to the modern Q in the English alphabet, and that is no coincidence. Koppa was still part of the Greek alphabet when the Latins adopted it, which led to this letter eventually becoming the Q in English. The English alphabet originated from the Romans. The sound Koppa indicated was a k sound. It eventually fell out of favor in Greek, being replaced by the alternative letter Kappa, written as Κ.


This next letter is called Sampi. It was written as:


This is very similar to the modern T, but it is unrelated. That modern letter comes from the ancient Greek Tau which, of course, had a t sound. In contrast, the ancient Greek Sampi had some kind of s or sh sound, although the exact vocalization is unknown. In any case, it fell out of favor when this sound was no longer used.

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