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In Greek the letter B sounds /v/; for example we have Vanadium which is Βανάδιο in Greek which in turn is transliterated as Vanάdio in English.

But what about when we have a /b/ sound? For example, we have Beckham which is Μπέκαμ in Greek which in turn is transliterated as Békam in English. Even when the word has a /b/ in the middle we have again combination; like in Obama which is Ομπάμα in Greek.

On the other hand the Μπ has an /mp/ sound if it's in the middle of words that have /mp/ sounds. For example, we have ampere which is Αμπέρ in Greek.

Why isn't there a distinct letter for /b/ while the sound exists?

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    Why are there no English letters for the sounds /θ/ (as in 'thing') and /ð/ (as in 'then')? Or /ʃ/ (as in 'show')? The truth is that with very few exceptions, the world's writing systems are a hotch-potch of historical baggage and improvisation. Modern Greek is very far from being the worst offender!
    – TonyK
    Oct 11, 2023 at 19:58
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    @SnackExchange Are they, though? μ is voiced and π is a labial stop, μπ is a voiced labial stop.
    – Draconis
    Oct 11, 2023 at 22:31
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    @SnackExchange: The only reason they are more obvious to you is that you are (or seem to be) a native English speaker. What do you think they look like to a Greek?
    – TonyK
    Oct 11, 2023 at 23:41
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    Similarly, Greek uses "Ντ" to indicate the sound /d/. E.g. Detroit is rendered as Ντιτρόιτ, and Dallas as Ντάλας. (Curiously, Dublin is Δουβλίνο.)
    – printf
    Oct 12, 2023 at 6:19
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    "th and sh are more obvious to sound /θ///ð/ and /ʃ/ than /mp/ to sound /b/." – I would say that the opposite is true. "μπ" looks like a voiced nasal followed by an unvoiced stop, and it's pronounced as a voiced stop. Very straightforward. On the other hand, "th" looks like an alveolar stop followed by a glottal fricative, so it would be logical for it to be pronounced as either an alveolar fricative or a glottal stop. Instead, it denotes a dental fricative. There's nothing obvious about that. Using "sf" and "zv" would make more sense, but I guess zvey sfought zvat "th" would be better. Oct 12, 2023 at 12:23

1 Answer 1

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The last time the Greek alphabet was truly overhauled was millennia ago, when a version tuned for the Ionian dialect (known as the "Euclidean alphabet" after the archon who championed it) was propagated to most of Greece. It didn't quite have a letter for each phoneme—it didn't have separate letters for all the long and short vowels, for example, and it wasn't until a while later that people started indicating the pitch accent—but it was pretty well suited for Ionian, and pretty much okay for other dialects.

Then the language continued to evolve for thousands of years, but the alphabet has never again been overhauled to the same extent. As part of that evolution, the /b/ sound in Ancient Greek started being pronounced as [v]. (Somewhat later, the sequence /mp/ came to be pronounced as [mb], as in πέμπω "send".) The alphabet still worked fine at this point; they didn't have a /b/ phoneme separate from /v/, so having a single letter beta worked fine.

Except then, Greek borrowed a bunch of words from Turkish (and other places) containing a /b/, and they needed a way to represent it. The only place the [b] sound appeared in native Greek words was after /m/, like in πέμπω, so they started using the sequence μπ to indicate /b/ in loanwords, like μπρούτζος "bronze".

If the alphabet ever got thoroughly overhauled again, they might split beta into two separate letters, one for /b/ and one for /v/. That's what Cyrillic did: В is /v/ and Б is /b/. But there's a lot of cultural resistance to making a big change like that, since it breaks continuity with centuries of old texts and inscriptions connecting modern Greece to Homer and Socrates. For now, using μπ to write both [mb] and [b] doesn't cause enough of an issue to overcome that resistance.

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    "alphabet debt" i suppose Oct 11, 2023 at 18:03
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    A similar thing happened in English. In Old English, there was no distinct way to write the sound /ŋ/; but it only occurred before velars (/k/ and /g/) so the cluster was written 'nc' (/ŋk/) or 'ng' (/ŋg/). In time, words ending in /ŋg/ (such as 'sing') often lost the final stop /g/, and came to be pronounced with final /ŋ/, at least in most dialects. So now, "ng" denotes both /ŋ/ (as in "singer") and /ŋg/ (as in "finger").
    – Colin Fine
    Oct 11, 2023 at 20:16
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    If you think that Greek or English spelling is confusing, take a look at Tibetan.
    – dan04
    Oct 12, 2023 at 0:08
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    @leftaroundabout There were earlier words, but many of them got displaced over time; now, μπρούτζος, κρατέρωμα, ορείχαλκος, and others all exist with slightly different shades of meaning. (Compare how "bronze" is a recent loan into English, despite the metal being known for millennia.)
    – Draconis
    Oct 12, 2023 at 16:41
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    "using μπ to write both [mb] and [b]": In fact, as we speak, there is an ongoing ferocious, rapid replacement of the traditional Greek [mb] by the strictly foreign [b] in cities, where younger generations can often not hear the difference, let alone use them differently in Greek-vs-nonGreek words... Oct 12, 2023 at 18:44

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