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Lesson Transcript


Hi, everybody! Stefania here. Welcome to Ask a Teacher, where I’ll answer some of your most common Greek questions.
The Question
The question for this lesson is “Why do some words sound different from the way they are written?”
Each letter in Greek has its own unique sound, so once you know all the letter sounds plus the pronunciation of a few specific letter combinations, you should be able to read any word correctly. However, some words might sound slightly different from the way they are written due to a phonological phenomenon called “assimilation.” With assimilation, a sound within a word or between words is modified slightly to become more like the next sound. For example, in English, “ten boats” in casual and rapid speech sounds like “tem boats.”
Let's go into more detail. First, let's see some assimilation cases that are compulsory so you'll hear them from everyone and in any kind of speech, casual or formal.
The first is the /s/ sound that becomes a /z/ sound before a voiced consonant either between two words or within a word. Voiced consonants are the ones that when pronounced, create a vibration in your vocal chords. Those are β, γ, δ, ζ, λ, μ, ν, ρ, τζ, μπ, ντ, γγ, and γκ. Listen to the /z/ sound of the σ in these examples σβήνω (zvíno, "to erase") and της Ζωής (tis Zoís, "Zoe's").
The letters λ (l) and ν (n) are an exception and usually never affect a preceding σ (s), for example, σνομπ (snob, "snob") and σλαβικός (slavikós, "Slavic"). However, between word boundaries, there might be an optional assimilation of λ (l). For example, ψηλός λόφος (psilós lófos) without assimilation can also be pronounced with assimilation, ψηλός λόφος (psilóz-lófos).
Here are some sample sentences.
Έχω σγουρά μαλλιά. (Ého zgurá maliá.)
"I have curly hair."
Το κορίτσι παίζει με μια σβούρα. (To korítsi pézi me mia zvúra.)
"The girl is playing with a spinning top."
Next let's see some special consonant clusters that begin with the letter γ and how this gets assimilated. Those are γξ, γχ, and γκτ.
In these clusters, γ is always pronounced like an /n/ sound, otherwise the words that include them would be difficult to articulate. For example,
έλεγξα (élenxa, "I checked"), μελαγχολία (melanholía, "melancholy"), and ανεξέλεγκτος (anexélenktos, "uncontrollable")
Next, we'll see cases were letters get silenced rather than changed. This is what happens when two identical consonants are next to each other. For example θάλασσα (thálasa, "sea"). We pronounce the double σσ (ss) as if it were only one. The only exception here is the double γγ that produces a /g/, /ŋg/ or /ŋɣ/ sound.
Another silent letter is the π (p) in the cluster μπτ (mpt). This is optional though. So some people, usually in formal speech, pronounce it and say Πέμπτη (Pémpti, "Thursday"), for example, while others say Πέμ(π)τη (Pém-ti).
Here are some sample sentences.
Η δουλειά του τού προκαλεί άγχος. (I duliá tu tú prokalí ánhos.)
"His job stresses him."
Ο ελεγκτής ελέγχει τα εισιτήρια των επιβατών. (O elenktís elénhi ta isitíria ton epivatón.)
"The inspector is checking the tickets of the passengers."
Other optional assimilation cases happen in word boundaries between a word that ends in ν (n) and the word that follows.
Such assimilation is common in casual speech but avoided in formal speech as it doesn't sound sophisticated.
If a word that begins with κ, π, τ, ξ, ψ, τσ or τζ comes after a word that ends in ν, then the ν might be silenced changing these letters into a /g/, /b/, /d/, /gs/, /bs/, and /dz/ sound accordingly. For example,
τον κουρέα (ton kuréa, "the barber") might sound like το γκουρέα* (to guréa*)
την πατάτα → τη μπατάτα* (tin patáta → ti batáta*, "the potato")
τον ταμία → το νταμία* (ton tamía → to damía*, "the cashier")
δεν ξύνω → δε γκσύνω* (den xíno → de gsíno*, "I'm not scratching")
σαν ψάρι → σα μπσάρι* (san psári → sa bsári*, "like a fish")
τον τσίμπησε → το ντζίμπησε* (ton tsíbise → to dzíbise*, "(s)he pinched him")
την τζαζ → τη ντζαζ* (tin jaz → ti dzaz*, "the jazz")
With π (p), the final ν (n) may also sound like a μ (m). For example,
τημ πατάτα* or τημ μπατάτα* (tim patáta* → tim batáta*, "the potato")
(* Not an alternative spelling!)
Here are some sample sentences.
Μην αγγίζεις την κάμπια! (Min angízis tin kámbia.)
"Don't touch the caterpilar!"
Πηγαίνω στην τράπεζα μία φορά τον μήνα. (Piyéno stin trápeza mía forá ton mína.)
"I go to the bank once a month."
Lastly, the final ν (n) might also be silenced before words that begin with a /g/, /b/, or /d/ sound without affecting the next word.
δεν γκρινιάζω → δε γκρινιάζω* (den griniázo → de griniázo*, "I don't nag")
τον μπαμπά → το μπαμπά* or even τομ μπαμπά* (ton babá → to babá*/tom babá, "the dad")
την νταντά → τη νταντά* (tin dadá → ti dadá*, "the nanny")
For more information on assimilation and Greek pronunciation in general, check out our Ultimate Greek Pronunciation Guide video series on GreekPod101.com


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Γεια χαρά! (Ya hará!)