Nowadays, the letter Η/η is called "ita" by Greeks and "eta" by physicists. But I'm curious: if I went back in time and talked to Socrates, what name would he have used?

Background: historically, Η came from the Phoenician letter het (or heth), which represented a /ħ/ sound. Some Greek dialects used it as a consonant, which is how we get the English letter "H", while others used it as a vowel, which is how we get the Greek letter "Η". (EDIT: As Alex B points out, some used it for both a consonant and a vowel, like how Latin used "V".)

The name clearly comes from het, and in the consonant-using dialects it would make perfect sense to call the letter heta. I've also come across this quote from a scholium on Dionysius Thrax:

Διὰ τί τὸ "η" πρὸ τοῦ "τ" ψιλοῦται, ἐν δὲ τῷ ἧτα τῷ ὀνόματι τοῦ στοιχείου δασύνεται; Ἐπειδὴ παρὰ τοῖς ἀρχαίοις ὁ τύπος τοῦ "Η" ἐν τύπῳ δασείας ἔκειτο, ὥσπερ καὶ νῦν τοῖς Ῥωμαίοις.

Why is Ē before T pronounced without an /h/, when the name of the letter "hēta" is pronounced with one? It's because the ancients used the letter hēta for the /h/ consonant—like the Romans still do nowadays. (Trans. mine, and somewhat loose)

However, I've never actually heard someone call the letter "heta", and it seems I'm not alone in this. I have heard people call Υ/υ hypsilon, so it's probably not just /h/ disappearing.

P.S. I'm most interested in what the post-Eucleidian Attics called it, since they still had an /h/ phoneme, but used the letter Η as a vowel. Answers from other dialects would also be interesting, but Attic is most relevant here.

  • 1
    Perhaps this might interest you as well. D'Angour 1999 "Inconsistent usage of consonantal H is found on Attic state inscriptions at least as late as 407-6 (ML 91). On a stele dated 409-7 (ML 89) it appears together with H=eta and with occasional psilosis. Occurrences later than 403/2 appear to be archaisms: Threatte (1980) 24-5, 483" (p. 109, footnote 3). – Alex B. Apr 13 '19 at 16:35
  • 1
    This might be interesting for you too: Plutarch, On the E at Delphi. penelope.uchicago.edu/misctracts/plutarchE.html – K. Park Apr 13 '19 at 22:18


enter image description here

This tells us that in Hippocrates, Plato, and elsewhere, the name of the letter is spelled with smooth breathing. (Of course the breathings would have been added by Alexandrian editors, so we can't be 100% that Plato didn't actually call it ἧτα.) The last citation, with rough breathing, is your scholium on Dionysius Thrax.

| improve this answer | |

Since some time has gone by without anyone else supplying documentary evidence concerning the matter, I'll provide an answer based on what I think must have happened, but without any ancient quotations to back it up.

First of all, the name of the letter Η must have been heta (ͱῆτα or hε͂τα) at the time when the letter was still being used to indicate /h/ - after all, it came from the Phoenician letter 𐤇/ḥet, and the first sound represented its value.

We also know that ultimately it became known as eta (ἦτα), no doubt because it no longer represented /h/ but rather /ɛ:/ (subsequently -> /e:/ -> /i(:)/), and there is always a tendency to have the initial sound of a letter name to represent sound of the letter.

So the real question is, when did people start pronouncing the name of the letter /ɛ:ta/ rather than /hɛ:ta/? It seem difficult to believe that after adoption of the Ionic alphabet in Athens people that were used to call the letter [hɛ:ta] would immediately switch to calling it [ɛ:ta] - people are just not like that. We must imagine some transition time in which people started calling it [ɛ:ta], under the pressure of wanting to have its initial sound reflect how the letter was used. How long? No doubt some people were more conservative than others, but the quote from Dionysios Thrax indicates that it persisted in some quarters for a considerable time.

There's an interesting parallel (or perhaps "anti-parallel") in English. In my speech, and the speech of everyone I normally come into contact with (I'm speaking from New England), the name of English letter H is [eiʧ], but apparently elsewhere (especially in the UK), other people consider [heiʧ] to be the perfectly normal name for the letter. The pronunciation of the name of H without the initial [h] comes from French, and is ultimately a result of the loss of /h/ in vulgar Latin. The re-introduction of the aspirate in [heiʧ] is due to a desire to make the name of the letter reflect its normal pronunciation in English.

| improve this answer | |
  • Very interesting! But I wonder if we know that eta predated the loss of aspiration at all? That is, might people not have pronounced it heta up until /h/ disappeared entirely? After all, modern ypsilon has no /h/, but we know phonologically it must have been there all the way to the end. – Draconis Apr 16 '19 at 4:09
  • As far as Attic itself is concerned, the phoneme /h/ certainly persisted after adopting the use of eta to represent a vowel. It seems that the Ionic re-purposing of H to indicate a vowel was due, at least in part, to the loss of /h/ in at least in some varieties of Ionic. – varro Apr 16 '19 at 4:19
  • I thought h developed as follows: [aha] > [aka] > [atS@] > [aS] (sorry for the SAMPA; I’m on my phone). The h sound was not initial, and was not lost but turned into k (as in mihi > [miki] in Ecclesiastical Latin) – Asteroides Apr 16 '19 at 4:35
  • Since my last comment, I looked at the Wikipedia article on H, and it seems like different etymologies have been proposed for the French form. – Asteroides Apr 16 '19 at 5:44
  • @Draconis There are attestations of the spelling ἦτα from Plato and others, see LSJ. – TKR Apr 17 '19 at 1:49

Some more interesting examples:

Callias II ("The Athenian"), frag. The Tragedy of Letters:

<τὸ ἄλφα>, βῆτα, γάμμα, δέλτα, θεοῦ γὰρ εἶ, ζῆτ᾿, ἦτα, θῆτ᾿, ἰῶτα, κάππα, λάβδα, μῆ, νῦ, ξεῖ, τὸ οὖ, πεῖ, ῥῶ, τὸ σίγμα, ταῦ, <τὸ> ὖ, παρὸν <τὸ> φεῖ, <τὸ> χεῖ, τε τῷ ψεῖ εἰς τὸ ὦ.

βῆτα ἦτα βη

{A.} ἦτ᾿ ἄρα φήσω

Plato, Cratylus:

ΣΩ. Οὐκοῦν τοῦτό γε ἕξιν νοῦ σημαίνει, τὸ μὲν ταῦ ἀφελόντι, ἐμβαλόντι δὲ τὸ οὖ μεταξὺ τοῦ χῖ Cκαὶ τοῦ νῦ καὶ τοῦ νῦ καὶ2 τοῦ ἦτα; (414C)

τῷ ἄλφα ξενικῶς ἀντὶ τοῦ ἦτα χρησάμενος καὶ τὸ ἰῶτα καὶ τὸ σῖγμα ἀφελών. (407B)

ΣΩ. Οὐκοῦν οὗτος μὲν παντὶ δῆλος Φαῖστος ὤν, τὸ ἦτα προσελκυσάμενος; (407C)

| improve this answer | |
  • Very interesting—I'm also intrigued by the smooth breathing on the . – Draconis Apr 17 '19 at 4:04

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.