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The typical advice that you receive, when transliterating Greek words into Roman letters, is that Greek υ (upsilon) can either be Roman "y" or "u." (See, for instance, the Wikipedia article on the topic.) More specifically:

  • By itself, it is transliterated y, e.g. ὑπόθεσις -> hypothesis.
  • In a diphthong, it is transliterated u, e.g. εὔνοια -> eunoia.

This certainly seems to be a consistent feature of English words derived from Greek, e.g. "hypochondriac," "dialysis," etc.

I have found, however, that many contemporary philosophy journals opt for a transliteration scheme that always uses u. See, for instance, the following articles published in prestigious journals:

  • Reeve, C. D. C. “Hupolêpsis, Doxa, and Epistêmê in Aristotle.” Ancient Philosophy Today 3, no. 2 (October 2021): 172–99.
    • ὑπόληψις -> hupolēpsis
  • Moss, Jessica, and Whitney Schwab. “The Birth of Belief.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 57, no. 1 (2019): 1–32.
    • ὑπόληψις -> hupolêpsis (Macron vs. circumflex is another interesting question here!)
  • McCready-Flora, Ian. “Aristotle and the Normativity of Belief.” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 44 (2013): 67–98.
    • ὑγιεινῶς -> hugieinōs

Other philosophy journals, however, seem to use "y."

One might also note, in passing, that upsilon (as opposed to ypsilon) seems to be the most common transliteration of the Greek letter itself.

I realize that there is a difference of method. My question is about why there is a difference, and whether there is a good way to determine which transliteration scheme to use. Is it, for instance, a "British" thing to use "u" always, or perhaps a domain-specific philosophy convention?

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    Use y if you're a Roman writer borrowing a Greek word into Latin and u in every other situation.
    – Cairnarvon
    Commented Mar 5 at 18:52
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    Are you only looking for transliterations for use in English? In Finnish, for example, "y" seems to be the only option outside diphthongs, which probably has to do with the Finnish pronunciation of these sounds.
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Mar 5 at 19:37
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    @Joonas I added a note to clarify that I'm interested in English, though that's certainly interesting as well!
    – brianpck
    Commented Mar 5 at 19:40

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I think you can choose whichever convention you like without it making much difference. The use of u is at any rate not completely restricted to British writers; nor, I believe, universal among them.

Using Y for υ goes back to an ancient Roman transcription system

Words like hypothesis, hypochondriac are 'international' formations based on educated Latin transcription conventions for Greek terms borrowed into Latin after the letter Y was added into the Latin alphabet to represent the foreign sound of the Greek letter (which we assume was [y] at that time and place). Words of this type are well established and exist in great numbers in English as well as in many other European languages. Despite the theoretical distinction between vocabulary of Latin and Greek origins, words like these can be viewed as belonging to Latin-based international scientific/educated vocabulary, based on the habit (spanning Late Latin to New Latin) of using borrowed Greek words and roots as material to form Latin learned vocabulary. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) entry for hypochondriac refers to French hypocondriaque and Latin hypochondriacus as sources of the English term, rather than describing it as a direct borrowing from Ancient Greek into English. Note also the use in this word of ch and especially c, which is rather characteristic of words with this type of Latinized spelling.

Spellings with u corresponding to Greek υ existed anciently in Latin for some words; they seem to have been common in borrowings that predate the time when Y was added to the Latin alphabet: e.g. murra = μύρρα.

Some scholarly transcriptions of Greek use U systematically for υ

Rather than representing a continuation of the aforementioned ancient Latin transcriptions like murra (which, as far as I know, were not part of a truly standardized system), I believe hupolêpsis, hugieinōs, hubris represent a somewhat more recent academic convention for the transliteration or transcription of ancient Greek vowels, possibly informed by the scholarly reconstruction of its original value as a high rounded vowel. Per W. Sidney Allen, Vox Graeca p. 126-127, speculation that υ originally had the value [u] occurred at least as early as Aldus Manutius in 1508; Erasmus's famous De recta Latini Graecique sermonis pronuntiatione in 1528 identified the value of ancient Greek υ as French u, i.e. [y].

I think this transcription of υ is usually (although not necessarily always) accompanied by rendering αι οι ει ου as ai oi ei ou (rather than ae oe i u); the former can be viewed either as a closer transliteration of the Greek spelling, or as a better transcription of the reconstructed early pronunciation of the Greek sounds in question (in contrast, ae oe i u, the conventional transcriptions of αι οι ει ου in Classical Latin, seem to have been based on the vowel sounds of Greek and Latin in around the first century BC). The converse doesn't apply, though: some transcriptions use ai oi ei ou along with y for single υ.

Although I suggested that the style of transcription described in this section is "somewhat more recent", it has certainly been around for a long time now: it goes back to at least the 16th century.

1884 Boys of good family, who have always been toadied, and never been checked, who are full of health and high spirits, develop what Academic slang knows as hubris, a kind of high-flown insolence. Daily News 28 October (Ware)

For a while now, English writers have been using either

The frequency of u vs. y doubtless has varied over time, but I don't think either is universal in English today or has been for at least the past hundred years. Hence why I think you should feel free to choose either option. Of course, if everyone in a discipline that you belong to seems to prefer one way, you might choose to "do as the Romans do."

I found an open textbook by Peter L. Smith (founding Chair of the Classics Department at the University of Victoria) about GREEK AND LATIN ROOTS (5th Edition published 1997) with the following relevant section on "§101. Transliteration and Latinization"

when we have to deal with the Greek letters κ, χ, ῥ, and υ, we may start to wonder. If we are to be as exact as possible, we ought to transliterate καρδια as kardia, καρακτηρ as kharaktēr, and ῥυθμος as ruthmos. But wouldn’t our English derivatives from these three words suggest the transliterations cardia, charactēr, and rhythmos? In fact, these three alternative versions are perfectly acceptable transliterations, preferred by many authorities. Historically, the Latin language rendered Greek kappa (κ) by the consonant c, chi (χ) by the two Roman letters ch, and aspirated rho (ῥ) by rh; as we saw in §100, Latin represented Greek upsilon (υ) by the Roman letter y. In pondering what to do with these four Greek letters, we must come to terms with the whole question of LATINIZATION, a broader issue which complicates the process of exact transliteration. It is the Latinized spelling of Greek words that will often determine the form of our English derivatives. [...] What are we to do with AἰσχυλοςAiskhulos or Aischylos or Aeschylus? The first version is an exact transliteration; the second can also be described as a transliteration, using Roman alphabet conventions (χ = ch, υ = y); but the third is a full-blown LATINIZATION, where a Greek diphthong (αι) has been spelled as its Latin counterpart (ae), and where the Greek noun ending -ος has been rendered by the equivalent Latin declension form (-us).

Note that Smith distinguishes between full-blown Latinization, and the use of transcription/transliteration conventions influenced by Latin habits.

I don't know how things are different in other languages, but I think u for υ is not unknown outside of English and French. However, it seems that some English speakers have been motivated to avoid y by concern that this letter might be more misleading than u as a representation to an English reader's eyes of the Ancient Greek vowel sound. That concern would not apply to a German or Finnish speaker, assuming they meant to represent the Classical Attic pronunciation of υ as [y]: this is exactly the sound that the letter Y currently has in German and Finnish. (I believe the use of Y with that value in these languages is itself derived from scholars' inferences about the value of Greek υ: Y currently occurs in German spelling only in learned or borrowed words, and Finnish orthography is a relatively recent creation.)

[11129.]-Greek "Upsilon."-"A Harrow Fellow" (p. 75) is clearly wrong, when he states that the English u is the Greek upsilon; and "E. L. G." appears also to be in error, when he writes y for upsilon. The Romans not having the Greek u, which is u French, or ü German, adopted the letter y to represent its sound when they Latinised Greek works; but our y has quite a different sound, and it would be just as absurd to write "Müller" as Miller or Myller, as tupto typto, or drus drys; the y in these cases being no nearer the u than i. "E. L. G." seems to be confusing Latinised Greek words with transliteration. If we really wish to represent the Greek sound, we must do what the Romans did, use a new character, and we might, therefore, write tüpto without offence.-M. Paris.

("English Mechanic and World of Science" 369, April 19, 1872.)

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    I feel like this answer is confusing transliteration, which the hupolēpsis &c. examples certainly are, with adaptation, as in hypochondriac and the loans into Latin.
    – Cairnarvon
    Commented Mar 5 at 23:02
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    Surely this is not recent at all, in fact it seems to me like it would derive from Erasmian Pronunciation. The Biblical academic community has been transliterating "πρεσβύτερος" as "presbuteros" for at least a couple hundred years, I'm pretty sure
    – Nacht
    Commented Mar 6 at 2:12

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