To read Greek icon inscriptions, one must learn the Greek alphabet, which is easy and requires only a little time. The sound of the letter is more important to the reader of icons than its name. Here is the Greek alphabet with its sounds (approximations). For some letters I give the “old” generally-accepted pronunciation as well as the “new” modern Greek pronunciation, which one may ignore unless one is learning modern Greek.
Αα = A as in ah
Ββ = B Old: B as in boy; New: V as in very
Γγ = G Old: G as in go; New: G as in go, sometimes Y as in yard. In old and modern, γγ is pronounced like ng in longer
Δδ = D Old: D as in dark; New: Th as in this
Εε = E as in epic
Ζζ = Z as in zone
Ηη = E Old: e as in epic (or like a in mate); New: Ee as in peel
Θθ = Th as in thick
Ιι = I ee as in meet
Κκ + K as in kin
Λλ = L as in lamp
Μμ = M as in mill
Νν = N as in no
Ξξ = X as in dixie
Οο = O Old: O as in not; New: O as in post
Ππ = P as in past
Ρρ = R as in (Spanish) Rosa
Σσς S as in sack. σ is used as the first letter or within a word, ς as the last letter of a word
(Σ is commonly written as C on old icons)
Ττ = T as in time
Υυ = Y Old: German umlaut ü as in über ; New: ee as in peel
Φφ Ph as in phone
Χχ = Ch as in (German) Bach
Ψψ = Ps as in tips
Ωω = O as in pole
Ω as a capital letter is often written as a large ω on old icons.
Those are the basic letters. It is important to note that what looks like a reversed comma apostrophe in English — when used in Greek over a vowel — indicates that the vowel is to be pronounced (old system) with an “h” before it. All you really need to know of Greek accent marks is found in the words ὁ φίλος, ho philos, meaning “the friend.” The reversed comma-like accent above the o gives it the added “h” sound, and the accent above the i in philos indicates that the first syllable is stressed. Modern Greek ignores the rough breathing (the initial “h” sound), but in writing about icon inscriptions it is usually kept in transliteration.
Those who want to go beyond that brief introduction to the Greek alphabet will find plenty of information elsewhere on the Internet.
What one does not often find elsewhere is information on the peculiarities of Greek icon inscriptions. Among these is the practice of abbreviation, generally indicated by a long, curving horizontal line over the word that looks somewhat like an extended tilde (~) in Spanish. That tells us letters have been omitted in writing. The other important peculiarity is ligature — the joining of letters that are not ordinarily joined. One letter may be attached to the next, for example an A may be joined to an N, or a T may be placed atop an o, etc. The alert student will quickly become accustomed to these.
CHURCH SLAVIC ALPHABET
Here, for quick review, is the modern Russian Cyrillic alphabet, followed by the added letters necessary to read Church Slavic inscriptions, used not only on Russian icons but also on Bulgarian, Serbian, Macedonian, and even older Romanian images. The sounds given are those of Church Slavic:
Аа — A as in “ah.”
Бб — B as in “bee”
Вв — V as in “victor”
Гг — G as in “go”
Дд — D as in “do”
Ее — E as in “Ed”
Жж — Zh as the s in “leisure”
Зз — Z as in “zoo”
Ии — I as ee in “see”
Йй — I with a slight “y” sound on the end.
Кк — K as in “keg”
Лл — L as in “lamp”
Мм — M as in “mom”
Нн — N as in “no”
Оо — as in “oh”
Пп — P as in “pet”
Рр — R as in “rim” (made with the tip of the tongue)
Сс — S as in “so”
Тт — T as in “too”
Уу — U as in “rule”
Фф — F as in “fog”
Хх — CH as in Scottish “loch” or German “Bach”
Цц — TS as in “bits”
Чч — CH as in “chug”
Шш — as in “shush”
Щщ — SHCH as in “hush-child”
Ъъ — indicates no change in preceding consonant
Ыы — UI as the southern U.S. pronunciation of “we” ( u in “push” followed by ee in “see”) — or as “EE” in “see.”
Ь — indicates a brief “y” sound after preceding consonant
Юю — IU as the “yoo” sound in “you”
Here are the specifically Church Slavic letters not found in modern Russian. You will note that some repeat the sounds of other letters.
Z as in “zoo”
I as ee in “see”
Ou as in “you”
O as in “oh”
Ye as in “yes”
Ya as in “yard”
Ya as in “yard”
The following letters are generally used for writing “non-Russian/Slavic” words borrowed from Greek.
From top to bottom, their sounds are:
Ks as in “licks”;
Ps as in “tips”;
F as in “food”
Ee as in “see,” but after a vowel often as V as in “vat”
Here is a more detailed look at the Church Slavic alphabet, which one MUST know to read icon inscriptions from Russia and other Slavic countries such as Bulgaria, Serbia, etc.
To read Russian and other Slavic icons, we want CHURCH SLAVIC/SLAVONIC, not OLD Church Slavonic, which will just confuse you. I emphasize this because some readers here have already had problems from mixing the two.
So here is the CHURCH SLAVIC alphabet — the one we use for reading Slavic icons. Do not be intimidated by it. It is actually easy to learn. Just remember that for reading icon inscriptions, all you need to remember is the letters and their sounds. All the little “rules” at the end are just for your information, and you need not bother with them unless you want to learn to write Church Slavic calligraphy.
Now for some notes and clarifications on that:
If you are using Church Slavic as pronounced in Russia, then the letter Г sounds like hard “g” in English “go.” Two together — ГГ — are pronounced as “ng” in “tangle.”
There are two forms of the “z” letter (as in English “zoo”); the first form is used for some words, but the second is the most commonly used. When written in modern Russian Cyrillic, the second form is used for both (З).
There are two forms of the “i” letter, pronounced like “ee” in English “see”; the first is used before consonants, the second is written before vowels, as well as used before consonants in words derived from Greek. When written in modern Russian Cyrillic, the first form is used for both (И ).
There are two forms of the “o” letter, pronounced like “o” in English “so.” The first is used at the beginning and middle of words. The second, which looks like Greek omega, is used to begin a prefix, and used in some words derived from Greek, as well as in other grammatical situations (not important to remember for reading). When written in modern Russian Cyrillic, the first form is used for both (O)
There are two forms of the “ou” letter, pronounced like “oo” in English “moon.” The first is used to begin words, the second is used within or at the end of words. The second form is just the o and y of the first form combined. When written in modern Russian Cyrillic, the form У is used for both.
There are two forms of the “ya” letter, pronounced like “ya” in English “yard.” With few exceptions, the first is used to begin a word, and the second is used within or at the end of a word. As you can see, the first is an i followed by an a; the second is rather like an Roman A, but with the added i placed just below the crossbar. An easy way to remember it is to think of it as “ia,” pronounced “ya.” When written in modern Russian Cyrillic, the Я form is used for both.
There are two forms of the “f” letter, pronounced like “f” in English “for.” The first is the usual form, derived from the Greek letter phi. The second is used for words derived from Greek (etc.), and is actually the Greek letter theta, but in Slavic it is pronounced “f” instead of “th.” When written in modern Russian Cyrillic, the Ф form is used for both.
Finally there is this letter. It is pronounced “v” as in English “vat” when used after “a” or “e.” But elsewhere it is pronounced “ee” as in “see,” primarily in words derived from Greek, etc. When written in modern Russian, the form И is used.
For reading, you do not have to remember all the little details of where one or the other form is used. You just have to remember its sound, so you can transliterate it. Of course if you want to write calligraphic VYAZ’, the linked form of Church Slavic letters, then you will want to keep these little rules in mind.
PLEASE REMEMBER that the writers of many icon inscriptions did not follow the standard placement rules for using these letters. They often just went with the phonetic sound of a letter and their personal whims. And of course one finds words misspelled.
Just for completeness, you may wish to know what those little accent marks are that one sees above words in Church Slavic inscriptions. You do not need to know them to read, but if you want to pronounce Church Slavic correctly, they are helpful. The marks are:
´ The acute accent, which leans to the right; it is placed over a vowel at the beginning or middle of a word. It often indicates the emphasized syllable.
` The grave accent (pronounced “grav” to rhyme with “slav”) leans to the left; it is placed over a vowel at the end of a word.
ˆ The circumflex accent, which looks like a little half moon when written. It is placed above a vowel to distinguish dual and plural nouns from an identical singular form of the noun
Further, there is a mark that looks like a circumflex accent facing left. It is used over a vowel that begins a word, and is sometimes followed on the same letter by an acute or grave accent. All of this will mean little to you if you just want to read Church Slavic (except for the dual/plural-singular distinction), but for those who just want to learn to read enough Slavic to read common icon inscriptions, you can safely ignore this accent information unless you want to impress (or more likely bore) your friends.
You already know that an abbreviation in Church Slavic is indicated by a horizontal, curved line that looks a little like the Spanish tilda (~), written above the abbreviated word.
Let’s take a look at a Church Slavic prayer to see alphabet and accents in use:
Here it is transliterated and rather literally translated:
Ts[a]riu n[e]b[e]snuiy, outyeshiteliu, d[u]she istinui,
O-Tsar heavenly, comforter, spirit of-truth
izhe vezdye suiy i vsya ispolnyayaiy,
who everywhere are and all fill,
sokrovishche bl[a’gikh’ i zhizni podateliu,
treasury of-blessings and of-life giver,
priidi i vselisya v’ nui
come and abide in us
i ochisti nuiy ot vsyakiya skvernui,
and cleanse us from every impurity
I spasi, bl[a]zhe, dushui nasha
and save, Good-one, souls of-us
In better English:
“O heavenly Tsar, comforter, spirit of truth, who are everywhere and fill all, treasury of blessings and giver of life, come and abide in us and cleanse us from every impurity, and save, Good One, our souls.”
You can see that in the word Ts[a]riu (O Tsar) has an abbreviation mark above it. Such a mark is called a titlo (plural titla). It is rather angular here:
Above the word nebesnuiy we also see a an abbreviation mark, a titlo, but it is more curved than angular here. A little letter c (“s” in English) is written under its curve, to show it is inserted into the word below. And as you see from my transliteration, the reader must supply the two missing e letters:
Note also the И letter at the end of nebesnuiy. I customarily transliterate it as “iy” or “y” when it has the little half moon facing upward accent above it.
And the second to last letter in nebesnuiy I customarily transliterate as “ui” (others often use “y”). It is like an “ee” sound, but not quite; it is more like the sound in the English word “me” when pronounced with an American southern accent, like a quickly spoken muh-ee, with the first “uh” as in “push” gliding swiftly into the stronger “ee.”
Remember, as mentioned previously, that there there is a letter combining the “o” and “t” sounds, and is pronounced “ot” as in English “note.” It means “of” or “from,” and you will see it often in icon inscriptions:
You will also want to be aware of the letter pronounced “ye” as in English “yea” (rhymes with “say”). In modern Russian Cyrillic it is not distinguished in form from an ordinary е:
Finally, remember that the “oo” sound is written somewhat like a “v” or “u” atop an “o.” It combines the letters o and u, as in the word dushui (“souls”):
Please note the two letters that do not really indicate sounds. They are Ь and Ъ .
Ь just indicates that the previous letter is “soft,” that is, you pronounce it with an added little “ye” sound that is just hinted at, not fully spoken. And Ъ just means the previous consonant does not have that added litte “ye” sound. The technical terms for these effects are “palatized” or “soft” for the first and “non-palatized” or “hard” for the second. I often omit them in simple transliteration here, but they can indicate a difference in meaning, so more fully, Ь is transliterated as ‘ and Ъ as “.
Thanks again to Matthew Bielawa for kindly letting me borrow from his genealogy site.