NT Greek et al.

Thinking about Koine Greek, the New Testament, and related topics

Using a polytonic Greek Keyboard

To up your game in making Anki cards or using the ever-growing host of computer tools for Ancient Greek you need to be able to type in Greek. This calls for a Greek keyboard. To get off in the right direction, we need a basic terminological distinction: monotonic vs. polytonic.

Polytonic vs. Monotonic

“Polytonic” and “monotonic” refer to the amount of Greek accents (ὁ τόνος) on the keyboard. By convention, Ancient Greek is written with three accents, hence “polytonic.” Modern Greek, since the late ’70s early ’80s, uses only one accent, the visual equivalent to the accute accent of Ancient Greek (though most of the accents can be found on Modern Greek keyboards as well). Thus, a standard Greek keyboard won’t work for us; we need a polytonic Greek keyboard to use all three accents. All you need for typing in Greek is a polytonic keyboard layout and a unicode font (your computer almost certainly already has one. Some free Greek ones are the SBL-biblit font and New Athena).

Where to get a polytonic keyboard?

There are several polytonic keyboard layouts available. I will link to a few below. I used the Tyndale keyboard layout (which also comes with a Hebrew keyboard, useful for Bible scholars) for years. I have switched to using the one native to Microsoft, as it is an actual Greek keyboard layout. Like the kind Greek people use today to type Greek on their Greek computers. Since I am learning Ελληνικά (that’s Modern Greek) and want to streamline my typing, it only makes sense to use a Greek keyboard layout rather than one adapted to an English keyboard. Most polytonic keyboards in use in the context of Greek studies map the Greek characters onto look-alike or sound-alike keys that an English (or German, etc.) speaker would probably associate them with. While this is nice for starting, it does not optimize typing Greek words. If you only intend to type an odd word here or there, it is not a big deal. If you spend a meaningful amount of time typing, it starts to get rather annoying.

Every Greek polytonic keyboard layout I have seen struggles to find an elegant way to do the various accents. The solution often involves extensive use of the alt and shift keys (which gets tedious and slow when typing for anything more than a few words at a time). Most keyboard layouts take one of two solutions (or sometimes a mix of the two):

  1. Various key combinations are used to insert any specific accent or combinations of accents. In other words, if you want to produce the following character, ἦ, you hit the specific keystroke assigned to the value “circumflex accent with smooth breathing” and the vowel eta (usually the ‘h’ key). The attractiveness of this approach is that you don’t have to strike two or three (or four) different keys to get the desired character. This approach makes getting going a little harder as it is necessary to remember where more keys are, but I appreciate it in the long run.
  2. Each accent character has its own key and combinations are built by pushing all the different keys in an allowable order (the allowable order has to be learned). Thus, to get our same character, ἦ, you would enter in the allowable sequence the key for the circumflex accent and the key for the smooth breathing and the key for the letter. This approach allows you to make more frequent use of keys that don’t require as far of finger moves for basic accents. However, it means producing a complex combinations of accents, like ᾖ, may take pushing 4-6 different widely separated keys (often involving use of both alt and shift in combination with different keys in the process), which is tedious and slow.

All that to say, I recommend that you just use the keyboard native to Windows or Mac, whichever you have, unless you see an obvious benefit in doing otherwise. This will mean that anywhere you go you will be able to get the same keyboard without having to download a keyboard onto every machine. Also the layout is the same as Modern Greek, which is a real plus if you aim to learn Modern Greek or ever find the need to use a computer in Greece!

The Keyboards

Here’s how to activate the Microsoft polytonic Greek keyboard:

Step 1: Set the Language.

  • Click the Start button, then type “Region and Language,” and press Enter.
  • Under Languages, click Add a language, then type Greek in the search box.
  • Select Greek.
  • After that, select Greek under Languages and click Set as default.

Step 2: Add keyboard.

  • Under Languages, choose Greek and click Option
  • Under Keyboards, click Add a keyboard.
  • Then, choose Greek Polytonic.

After you change the language and add the keyboard, you need to Press Windows key + Spacebar (without releasing the Window key, press the spacebar) to switch between installed keyboards (choose Greek Polytonic).

All the information on the keyboard layout and how to type the different characters you need can be found here (credit where credit is due: I did not make this; I actually don’t know who did, but thanks to whoever you are!).

For Mac users: the keyboard for Mac appears to be identical to the keyboard for Windows (which is shocking to me). here are directions for how to turn it on and use it.

Typing Practice

The way I learned to type Greek was to quite litearlly type up the contents of books written in Greek (like books of the Bible), referencing the keyboard layout printout as needed. Eventually you learn to touch type in Greek. Later in my endeavors I switched from the Tyndale keyboard to Microsoft’s native polytonic keyboard (and their Modern Greek one). It was a bit of a pain to switch, but I hardly remember the old keys anymore.

If you want to take a sleeker approach to learning how to type, check out this resource put together by James Tauber. It teaches typing in Greek. The interface is designed for Mac, but the keyboards are the same so it should be minimally difficult to use for Windows (or Linux) users.

While getting your keyboard, go and get the spellchecker for Ancient Greek for Word (or get Libre Office with its spell checker).

Here are links to a couple other polytonic Greek keyboard resources:

Whatever layout you end up using, it will take some time to get used to it. If you have never learned a new keyboard layout before, it might be a learning curve just to understand what the different images for the keyboard layout and directions for typing are trying to convey. Persevere!

What is the best way to get proficient at using your keyboard? Sit down with the keyboard layout and instructions handy, and start typing some Greek. Copy a sentence, then a paragraph, then a chapter, etc.

Caveat for those who want to do Modern Greek

If Modern Greek is on your agenda to learn, then you need to use a polytonic keyboard that uses the same layout as native Greek keyboards. On several occasions I have had Greek that was typed on a non-native keyboard layout not read properly when I copied and pasted it into a Greek-English dictionary or word database online. I have no idea why this is the case. However, entering the info using a native Greek layout has never led to any problems.

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