I am learning Modern Greek on Duolingo, in the hopes that it will help me learn Koine and Ancient Greek, eventually. I have also watched a few other videos, like this one:


It is mentioned that "μπ" and "ντ" are usually indicators of needing to represent the "B" and "D" sounds from other languages, so they are for loan words.

Does this mean that if I encounter a Greek word that uses "μπ" and "ντ", it must be a newer word, and won't help me in learning Koine or Ancient Greek?

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    I got reasonably good in modern Greek a couple of decades now, and am now learning ancient Greek. The transition is quite difficult. If you don't have plans to visit Greece, then I would not recommend learning the modern language in order to get started on the ancient language. The vocabulary is very, very different, even for basic words like "bread," "water," "to speak," and "to be able to." Greetings, forms of address, and body parts are all different. You will have to unlearn the familiar/formal distinctions in verbs, and noun paradigms you memorize will be missing the dative. – Ben Crowell Mar 17 at 13:16
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    Note that although I don't doubt the correctness of the information in the video you linked, the speaker has a heavy foreign accent in modern Greek so you should not try to learn pronunciation (at least not of modern Greek) from that specific video (source: I'm a native Greek speaker). – – terdon Mar 17 at 15:17
  • I'm am intrigued. I have been told that that β is pronounced more like "veta" in modern Greek, so that we need μπ to get the "b" sound. But if we also need "ντ" to get the "d" sound that would seem to imply that δ is not pronounced "delta". Is this right, and if so how is it pronounced? Thank you. – Adam Chalcraft Mar 18 at 2:18
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    @AdamChalcraft That is correct, "δ" is pronounced like the "th" in "this". en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delta_(letter) – Nacht Mar 18 at 5:08
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    Interesting -- I was wondering about the spelling of the name of NBA player Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greek with Nigerian parents), and this explains it perfectly. – Federico Poloni Mar 18 at 9:43

Koiné Greek & earlier lacked initial <μπ>, <ντ>, or <γκ> although these strings are commonplace word-internally. There are however a small number of Modern Greek words beginning <μπ>, <ντ>, or <γκ> that are inherited from Koiné Greek or earlier

Originally, the letters <β>, <δ>, & <γ> were used to represent the voiced stops [b], [d], & [g], but then around the time of Koiné Greek, these stops spirantised in most positions

About the same time, the originally voiceless stops <π>, <τ>, & <κ> voiced after a nasal, which was also one of the few environments where <β>, <δ>, & <γ> retained their status as stops. The nasal part of these nasal-stop clusters was also often dropped from speech, as the preservation of the voiced stop was sufficient to show the presence of the earlier nasal

But then in Byzantine Greek you start having an influx of loanwords beginning with voiced stops [b], [d], & [g]. To spell these, the scribes decided that the closest native segments were the word-medial [(m)b], [(n)d], & [(ŋ)g], and so used the same spelling for initial [b], [d], & [g] as they usually did for word-medial [(m)b], [(n)d], & [(ŋ)g]; that is <μπ>, <ντ>, or <γκ>

From this, we would expect that no words with initial <μπ>, <ντ>, or <γκ> are native, but this actually isn't quite the case!

There are a few words findable on wiktionary beginning with these digraphs that are in fact native. In each instance I can find, the Ancient Greek etymon has the proclitic ἐν- "in" (with assimilation of the nasal). It seems that in at least some cases, the vowel of this proclitic was lost, but with the nasal still causing a voiced stop

As an example, we have μπαίνω < ἐμβαίνω < ἐν-βαίνω, where the root verb is also preserved into Modern Greek as βαίνω with the expected fricative onset

  • Thanks for the correction! This is good too note. – cmw Mar 17 at 13:19

No, there are plenty of ancient Greek words that have μπ and ντ in there somewhere.

Two common words off the top of my head are ἀντί and πέμπω, thoroughly attested throughout ancient Greek.

If you want to see all the ancient Greek words that merely start with ἀντ-, you can start here and scroll through many scores of entries.

What you won't see, though, are words beginning with "μπ" and "ντ" in ancient Greek, so those should all be modern borrowings.*

  • See also Tristan's post about the exception to this rule!
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    Oh of course, not to mention "άντρας". I almost made a comment in my question about whether starting with these letters matters, but I left it out for some reason. – Nacht Mar 17 at 0:18

C M Weimer is completely correct, but to add on a bit:

The reason ΜΠ and ΝΤ are used for /b/ and /d/ nowadays is because, historically, the voiced stops Β Δ Γ turned into fricatives, and then later the unvoiced stops Π Τ Κ got voiced after nasals. When Greek-speakers heard /b/ in words like Turkish bakkal, the closest equivalent in their language was the sound in the middle of πέμπω (/pembo/), so they spelled it μπακάλης.

Historically, though, ΜΠ and ΝΤ never appeared at the beginning or end of words; Greek never allowed nasals before other consonants within a syllable. So if you see those combinations of letters standing alone at the beginning or end, instead of between vowels, it's a good sign that the word is a later loan.

  • Oh... Γ as well, as in ΓΚ as in γκρι... – Nacht Mar 17 at 2:02
  • @Nacht not Γ, ΓΚ. You can have γ as the first letter in Greek words (e.g. γένος, γόνος, γονέας, γέλιο, γρίφος) but γκ in the beginning of a word is a good indication that it is a loan word (e.g. γκέλ, γκόμενα). – terdon Mar 17 at 13:11

A small correction to a near mis-statement in the question. (I'm a native MG speaker.)

  • μπ and ντ are not always pronounced as [b] and [d]! In fact, the "traditional" pronunciation is [mb] and [nd], and is alive and probably well, ... but perhaps on the way out. See cite below.

Ακουμπώ [Akoumbo] (touch); Κόμπος [kombos] (knot); γαμπρός [ghambros] (groom); but μπολιάζω [boliazo] (vaccinate);

έντεκα [endeka] (eleven); δέντρο [thendro] (tree); άντρας [andras] (man); σεντόνι [sendoni] (sheet) ... and so on.

These are "unshifted" pronunciations of the Ancient G, ἀκουμβίζω (Koine, from the Latin), κόμβος, γαμβρός, ἐμβολιάζω; ἔνδεκα, δένδρον, άνδρα (accusative), σινδών, etc, so the consonant complexes are pronounced the same as two and a half thousand years ago, but are now written differently―phonetically. (Except for [boliazo].)

With the influx of refugees from Asia Minor in the 1920s, and especially in cities, the [mb,nd] sounds begin to give way to [b,d], and this ongoing transition is the subject of numerous linguistic studies; cf "Early Modern Greek /b d g/: Evidence from Rebétika and Folk Songs", by Amalia Arvaniti and Brian D. Joseph.

Modern Greeks are thus beginning to lose the distinction: They hardly notice/hear it, just like Spanish lenition b-γ, d-δ, g-γ...; but comedians can always draw laughs by pronouncing foreign [b]s and [d]s as the traditional "backwoods" [mb] and [nd], presumably by rubes who never heard them before: αντίο [andio instead of adio], μπριζόλα [mbrizola instead of brizola] (steak), μαντάμ [mandam instead of madam] (madamme).

Typically, older Greek words like ανήμπορος [animboros] (helpless, incapacitated) or αντινομία [andinomia] (antinomy) are far more likely to have the [mb,nd] pronunciation than the [b,d] one, which is thought to be dry and urban/street-tough―it's off and it grates. It would be used for comic effect.

In the video cited, (8:05) the strongly foreign-accented speaker gets this right in αγαπώντας [aghapondas] ((while) loving), so he knows enough MG to ignore the distinction!

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