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O’s micro and mega

January 18, 2012

I don’t know how this happened. I’ve always been interested in orthography and letter-names. It’s always fascinated me that w is double-u in English, double-v in Spanish and French, and has an onomatopoeic name in German. (The history behind this, which you can read on the recently-unblackedout Wikipedia page, is fascinating.) But I’d never noticed that the Greek letters Ο and Ω–that is, o-micron and o-mega, o-little and o-great–had something similar going on.

“Never noticed” isn’t even right. I knew well enough that there was some sense in which they were both related to the letter o. I also knew that lower-case omega was ω, which looked rather like w. But I somehow never put the pieces together. I suspect this is partially because Ω/ω and W/w aren’t actually related. Ω/ω is great-o; the upper-case is an Ο opened up at the bottom and the lower-case is the upper-case flattened out and written in cursive. W/w is actually double-u.

It also would have been easier to see, I suppose, if omicron and omega were the only non-onomatopoeic letter-names in the Greek alphabet. But in fact the majority are polysyllabic, and many have specific meanings. Really modern alphabets, with their not having non-onomatopoeic proper names for letters, are the exception. Most Greek letters come from Phoenician and related languages, where they named their letters for the words they both looked and sounded like. A bit like “alpha bravo charlie,” actually. Except e.g. alpha comes from aleph, the word for ox, and the letter looked vaguely like an ox-head (the letter A still does, it’s just upside down).

But there are still some other Greek letters that have compound names for orthographic reasons. Ε/ε, epsilon, is e-simple, and Υ/υ, upsilon, is y-simple, to distinguish them from digraphs that sounded the same (a bit like calling “i” “i-simple” because “ay” also makes that sound…). Unlike with omicron v omega, I had always wondered why these both had “-psilon” in their name, but had never looked it up. But now I know, and knowing is half the battle.

I suppose most people won’t find this interesting, but for me it’s fascinating to see how easy it is to overlook something. The interest, as it were, is in the threat of boredom. And there’s something rather awe-inspiring about the way the alphabet was invented, even if it is a story I’ve read a thousand times. (It’s also nice to have Wikipedia back online, though I supported and support the blackout. I would have said something here about why but it slipped my mind, and most people who read this probably already know why already.)

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 19, 2012 8:14 pm

    I for one don’t think it’s boring. I love linguistics and learning about the alphabet. I’m constantly finding words (like omega and omicron) whose meanings seem pretty obvious now, but which I’ve overlooked my whole life, even if they were common words. For example, for a long time I had no idea that the word “filth” came from the word “foul,” or even that “lousy” came from “louse.” For a long while I didn’t even know that “louse” was the singular for “lice,” even though it follows the same rules as “mouse” and “mice.” I have never really studied the Greek alphabet, so I didn’t know anything about the o-little and o-small naming, or that upsilon and epsilon were y-simple and e-simple.

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