Why did Χ and Ψ have such different sounds in early Eastern and Western Greek? Which sounds are older? If the Western, why were both Ξ and Χ created to denote [ks] (note that they both appear in the earliest Etruscan alphabet)?

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    There were no less than 80 (!) local variants of the archaic Greek alphabet, most of them having numerous letter shape variations. Your question can hardly be answered with much degree of certainty, just the same way as we can't know why in Corinth the letter Iota "Ι" was written like the modern "Σ", why in some cities "Г" looked like "Ι", or why in many places like Corinth (Eastern alphabet) and Thessaly (Western alphabet) [s] was denoted by San "M" only and Sigma "Σ" was not used at all.
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Jun 30, 2020 at 17:08

1 Answer 1


Actually, Ξ was imported from the Phoenician alphabet (samekh, probably [s] – Smitic has a plethora of sibilants compared to Greek, so letters could be recycled for other purposes). But Ξ was not used in all dialects. Ψ and Χ were possibly created within Greek. The problem was the need to have some way to denote [pʰ tʰ kʰ ps ks], which could be done with digraphs, with distinct letters, or just ignoring the distinction. For some reason, Phoenician Ṭēt was uniformly pressed into service for [tʰ], but [pʰ kʰ ps ks] were dealt with differently by the dialects. It is speculated that X and Ψ were variants of the same letter, and in Western Greek it seems to be a simplification of ΧΣ (kʰs). There is a limit on how precise an answer to an ancient "why" question can be given: there is a need, there is a resource, people in one area made one decision, those in another area made a different decision.

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    Though of course, there wasn't actually any need to have letters for [ps ks], and some alphabets did without them -- it's a bit mysterious why those particular clusters got their own letters.
    – TKR
    Commented Jun 30, 2020 at 17:31
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    @TKR I always figured because those were the only clusters allowed in codas.
    – Draconis
    Commented Jun 30, 2020 at 17:38
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    @TKR - Vox Graeca - a Guide to the Pronunciation of Classical Greek, 1968, by William Sidney Allen says "it may also be noted that these groups do have a structural peculiarity in that they can occur in both initial and final position, and to this extent are comparable in Greek with single consonants rather than with other groups."
    – Yellow Sky
    Commented Jun 30, 2020 at 17:54
  • @Draconis [ls] is permitted in coda, though it's rare (and of course can't appear in onset). Anyway I'm not sure why that phonotactic fact would lead to a perceived need for specific letters for those clusters.
    – TKR
    Commented Jun 30, 2020 at 19:37

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