Sunday, 4 December 2016

All Greek

I find it fascinating how letters from the Greek alphabet have become a part of everyday English. Regularly we hear about the 'alpha male', 'gamma rays', how we don't care 'one iota', and the last or ultimate having the added 'omega'. As ever I began wondering just how these names developed and why. Hence what follows is twenty-four explanations for the twenty-four letters of the Greek alphabet.

Alpha, in its modern sense of 'the first', dates from the early 17th century. It is taken directly from the Hebrew and/or Phoenician aleph (Greek does not permit the use of certain consonants at the end of words so they added the final 'a') and, in turn, from the Semitic group of languages where eleph literally meant 'ox'. It is thought this is due to the character representing the head of an ox.

Beta is another ultimately from the Hebrew/Phoenician where bayt meant 'house'. Just why the 'house' is seen in the letter is difficult to understand as a 'B' is possibly the most diverse of all letters and represented in very differing forms in a variety of scripts. Note the word has also found its way into Hindi and Urdu where it means 'royal son'.

Gamma comes from the Phoenician gimel meaning 'camel', as it is said to resemble some part of the animal, most likely the curve of the neck when at rest. However this is possibly quite fanciful and may represent the Egyptian hieroglyph depicting a club or throwing stick similar to a boomerang.

Delta is from the Phoenician daleth meaning 'tent door' and describing the triangular shape of the letter.

Epsilon represents the Greek e psilon, literally '-e and nothing else'. This unusual meaning is to distinguish this letter with the diphthong 'ai', both having come to be pronounced the same. The Greek word psilon was used to mean both 'smooth' and 'simple', the former originating in the Proto-Indo-European root bhes 'to rub'.

Zeta may be the sixth letter of the Greek alphabet but it is the basis for our modern Z. It is derived from the Hebrew zayin, literally meaning 'weapon' and likely a reference to its shape resembling a jagged edge.

Eta is derived from the Phoenician letter heth, itself ultimately from the hieroglyph for 'thread'.

Theta comes from the Hebrew teth, and used as Greek shorthand for thanatos on ballots to suggest a sentence of 'death'. It was pronounced as the modern 'th' and only being pronounced as the 'th' in 'Thomas' or 'thyme' when influenced by Latin and is derived from a Proto-Indo-European or Germanic rune. Just what that rune represented is unknown, although note this is the first letter originating in a sound rather than an image, this due to the comparatively late development.

Iota is used to mean 'a very small amount' and was indeed the smallest of the Greek letters. It may correspond to our ninth letter of the alphabet but written without the dot or 'tittle' - the latter from the Greek keraia or 'little horn'. The letter comes from the Semitic languages and the Proto-Semitic yad, itself from the Egyptian hieroglyph of an arm.

Kappa is from the Herbrew qoph and Phoenician qaph and originally described 'the hollow of the hand'.

Lambda comes from the Hebrew lamed and Arabic lam, in both cases appears as a prefix and used as a preposition meaning 'to' or 'for', depending on the context.

Mu is from the Semitic mem and ultimately from the Egyptian hieroglyph for 'water'.

Nu is from the Phoenician nun and ultimately from the Egyptian hieroglyph of a snake.

Xi is another from the Phoenician, here samekh's origins are unclear. Likely dating from the Middle Bronze Age and thus originally a hieroglyph, it could represent a tent peg or similar as the modern Hebrew equivalent means 'to support'.

Omicron comes from the Greek meaning 'small o' and derived from the Proto-Indo-European word smik or 'small' as this is a notably short vowel. As a letter it is derived from the Phoenician ayn or 'eye', itself taken from the Egyptian hieroglyph of an eye.

Pi is another of Phoenician origins, here Pe and comes from the pictogram of a mouth.

Rho is from the Phoenician resh, the pictogram of a head and related to Proto-Semitic ra and the Sumerian cuneiform sign for 'head'.

Sigma may be from an obsolete letter san, yet the most popular explanation is this is a Greek creation and simply means 'hissing'.

Tau is from the Phoenician taw and is from the Egyptian hieroglyph meaning 'mark'.

Upsilon is from the Phoenician waw and described its shape when meaning 'hook'.

Phi represents the sound as in 'ph', an aspirated 'p' and as the sound made by blowing through the lips is officially referred to as a 'bilabial spirant'.

Chi represents the sound 'ch' although is shaped like the letter 'x' which explains why this comes from the Greek khiastos or 'two things placed crosswise'. As among the simplest of symbols it is common to many ancient languages and although the origin is comparatively late here, should be expected in any or even every form of writing.

Psi is the penultimate letter of the Greek alphabet and has somewhat uncertain origins. It likely comes from a rune as it has been adopted in several different written forms including Cyrillic where psy means 'dogs'.

Omega was a late addition to the Greek alphabet, not seen until around 2,800 years ago. It is related to omicron and means 'great o' - literally 'o - mega'. Much as the 'x' symbol would be common to many languages so would the circle which is 'o'. The difference is in the short form of 'o' being used in the first part of 'lotto' while the longer version is found at the end.

Hence the Greek alphabet could be said to be: ox, house, camel, tent door, simple, weapon, thread, death, arm, hollow of the hand, for, water, snake, tent peg, eye, mouth, head, hissing, mark, hook, blowing through the lips, two things placed crosswise, dogs, circle.

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