One of the first alphabets with vowel and consonant letters in Greek. It appeared between the 9th and 8th centuries BC. In the modern variant of this alphabet, there are 24 letters (7 of them are vowels, and the rest are consonants).
If we talk about the origin of the Greek alphabet, it is interesting that it is based on the Phoenician alphabet and not on the writing systems practiced in Ancient Greece. Each of the letters that make up the Phoenician alphabet was called by the word that began with it. For example, “aleph” meant “bull,” and “bet” meant “house.” Such examples can be given for other letters as well.
The Greek alphabet, formed based on the Phoenician, served to create several alphabets, which later spread to European and Middle Eastern states. The Latin and Cyrillic alphabets also belong to this list. But the influence of the Greek alphabet was not limited to this. Its letters were transformed in parallel into mathematical signs and designations of elementary particles.
At the beginning of the last century, a shortened version of the alphabet was used, lacking some letters. Let’s look at the letters of the Greek alphabet in more detail. They are interesting not only linguistically and historically. Many modern sciences and branches of practical knowledge use the Greek alphabet letters – from medicine to aircraft engineering.
Greek letters alphabets
Α α (άλφα, alpha)
Although its pronunciation is identical to the Russian “a,” this letter comes from the Phoenician “aleph,” meaning “bull.” Even its shape resembles that of a bull’s head.
The use of this letter covers many areas. For example, the field of medicine uses it to describe the alpha rhythm. Geometry does not lag behind, where alpha denotes flat angles. Astronomy also uses this letter. Not for nothing is the name of the brightest star in the constellation Centauri. This letter is used for heat transfer coefficients and angular acceleration in physics. It is also used to denote alpha particles. In short, the scope of use of this letter is very wide.
Β ϐ (βῆτα, beta)
The Greek “beta” is also of Phoenician origin. And in the Cyrillic alphabet comes from two letters at once – B and C. Most people have probably heard of beta particles and beta radiation. However, these are not the only phenomena for which the letter is used. It is used after α for angles in geometry. Beta is also used to denote the second brightest luminary in a constellation. Its application in the field of astronomy is quite broad.
There is also the concept of “beta” in programming. This term can be used for any IT product that is under development.
Γ γ (γάμα, gamma)
And this letter is characteristically Phoenician in origin. In the alphabet of Ancient Greece, it was used to denote a sound similar to the Russian “g.” The Cyrillic letter “g” also comes from the Greek gamma. Physics uses the letter to denote gamma radiation. It is also used to denote certain variables when referring to mathematical terms.
In astronomy, gamma refers to the third brightest luminary in a constellation.
Δ δ (δέλτα, delta)
The Phoenician and ancient Greek delta served as the source for the origin of the Cyrillic “D.” The original meaning of the Phoenician letter was “door.” It can also be interpreted as an entrance to a tent.
Physics uses the letter to denote certain variables with it. Mathematics uses it in the term Dirac delta function. Delta is also used to denote deviation in engineering mechanics. It is also used in chemistry and astronomy. For example, astronomers use it to refer to the brightness of celestial luminaries when referring to the fourth star in a constellation.
These are not the only examples of applying the letter delta in many sciences and disciplines’ theoretical and practical directions.
Ε ε (έψιλον, epsilon)
Here the Phoenician letter “hee” is transformed into the sound “e.” Several related Cyrillic vowels are derived from it at once. It is worth noting that the letters epsilon and ipsilon (Ε ε and ϒ υ) are sometimes confused. However, they are two completely different letters. Epsilon is used in many sciences and fields. These include physics, chemistry, mathematics, and astronomy, which have already been mentioned, and programming.
This letter’s common uses are set theory, automata theory, tensor calculus, angular acceleration in physics, blank line in computer science, etc. In astronomy, ε is used to denote the 5th star in a constellation, based on the brightness index.
Ζ ζ (ζῆτα, zeta)
The Phoenician letter from which zeta is derived was called “zen” or “zain.” Originally, the sound used to denote was similar to “zz.” However, the modern Greek alphabet has been somewhat transformed, and zeta is now pronounced as a resounding “z.” The letter is actively used not only by mathematicians but also by specialists in hydraulics and geodesy.
To elaborate, there is a concept of the Riemann zeta function in mathematics. Specialists in colloid chemistry use the letter when talking about the zeta potential. And in hydraulics, it is used when talking about the drag coefficient.
Η η (ήτα, eta)
The Phoenician letter “hit” served as the basis for the letter “ita” in the Greek alphabet. The variety of fields where this letter is used is astounding. Among them are quantum physics, thermodynamics, and even cosmetology.
In optics, the letter is used by measuring the optical medium. In thermodynamics, it is used in denoting the efficiency of heat machines. Equally important is the use of this letter in elementary particle physics, quantum field theory, astronomy, and several other sciences and disciplines.
Θ ϑ (phita, theta)
Like all the previous letters, it is of Phoenician origin. It is based on the Phoenician letter “theta.” Medicine uses this letter to refer to the theta rhythm. It is also used extensively in the field of electrodynamics.
Physicists use this letter when referring to Debye temperature. In geometry, it denotes the zenith angle if the coordinate system is spherical. Linear algebra engages theta for one of the designations in the zero matrices. And the concept of Theta function is known to all professionals in the field of mathematics.
Ι ι (γιώτα, iota)
This letter, which comes from the Phoenician “iodus,” is known even to many who are unfamiliar with the Greek alphabet. The saying “not to change one iota” is mentioned in the Bible. It has also become a part of the culture of many countries because this aphorism very succinctly conveys the meaning when one wants to state the absence of the necessary changes in a situation.
This letter is the origin of the Latin I and J. Also, a similar letter was present in the Aramaic alphabet. By the way, the above quote from the Bible does not mention this letter by accident. It was indeed the smallest letter in the alphabet.
Κ κ (κάππα, κάπα, kappa)
The Phoenician “kaph” is at its origin. And already from the Greek kappa comes the Cyrillic and Latin K. By the way, despite the similarity, the letters are written differently. Kappa stands for symbols in chemistry, physics, and even differential geometry.
In chemistry, the kappa stands for Debye’s parameter; in physics, it is used for the coefficient of thermal conductivity. In differential geometry, it stands for the curvature of a curve. In short, the letter’s applications are manifold.
Λ λ (λάμδα, λάμβδα, lambda)
This letter comes from the Phoenician “lamed” or “lambda.” As in many of the above examples, the Greek alphabet influenced the Cyrillic alphabet and the origin of the letter “l.” The scope of application of this letter today is astounding. It is used for bacteriophages in virology. It’s also used in linear algebra and linguistics. Lambda particles are known from physics. In the structure of airplanes, this letter is used to indicate wing elongation and in cartography to indicate the longitude of a location.
From historical sources, it is known that this letter was depicted on the shields used by the army soldiers in Sparta. Thus, the use of this letter was relevant both in antiquity and in our time.
Μ μ (μῦ, mu)
The Phoenician “mem” underlies the origin of the Greek mu and the Cyrillic and Latin letters M. This letter is used in physics, thermodynamics, and mathematics, where it is used to denote quantities.
This letter is used in the theory of measures. It is also used in the theory of dynamical systems. These are examples from mathematics. In physics, the dry friction coefficient, the primary particle muon, and many other quantities and phenomena are represented with mu. Thus, the use of this Greek letter is very versatile.
Ν ν (νῦ, ni)
In the alphabet of the ancient Phoenicians, it sounded like “nun.” In the Cyrillic alphabet, it is from this letter that the “N” comes. The pronunciation of both the Greek alphabet and the Cyrillic alphabet is identical.
Physics and chemistry use this letter to represent the amount of matter. It also stands for the frequency of waves, several other repetitive processes, and the elementary particle neutrino. Fluid dynamics use nu to denote the index of kinematic viscosity.
Ξ ξ (ξι, xi)
It is based on the Phoenician “sameh” or “semk.” In modern Cyrillic, there is no analog of this letter. Only in Church Slavonic writing today is there a preserved letter, which in oral speech corresponds to the sound “ks.”
This letter stands for a random value, but such usage is not exhaustive. It is also used in hydraulics and nuclear reactor theory.
Ο ο (όμικρον, omicron)
It is based on the Phoenician letter “ain.” This letter has no exact correspondence in Cyrillic; it partially coincides with “U” and “O.” Its pronunciation is close to the Russian sound “o.”
Astronomy makes extensive use of omicron to denote, with this letter, a measure of the brightness of stars. Many people have probably heard the phrase “Omicron of Andromeda” or any other luminary.
This designation is also used in medicine. For example, in November 2021, the WHO gave this name to a new strain of coronavirus.
Π π (πι, pi)
It is derived from the Phoenician “pe,” which served as a further formation of the Cyrillic and Latin P. The sound is pronounced as “p.” This letter is used in many areas of knowledge. The most famous of these is the designation of a mathematical constant. Also, the 16th letter of the Greek alphabet is used to denote potential energy. And in dimensional analysis, there is the P-theorem.
One of the elementary particles in physics is called a “pion” (or p-meson). In macroeconomics, this letter denotes the inflation rate and the parallax effect in astronomy.
Ρ ρ (ρω, rho)
It is based on the Phoenician “rosh.” This letter is used in both the exact and natural sciences. It is used extensively in mathematics, chemistry, and physics. For example, this letter stands for the distance at which the objects of metric space are located from each other. It also stands for the coefficient indicating the correlation between random variables.
In physics, it denotes the density of matter and the resistivity index.
Σ σ/ς (σίγμα, sigma)
It is rendered orally by the “s” sound and comes from the Phoenician “shin.” This letter is prototypical of the C in Cyrillic and the S in Latin. It is often used to denote variables in various sciences and branches. For example, sigma is used in electronics and quantum mechanics. It’s also used in medicine, chemistry, algebra, and even mechanics.
For example, in mathematics, sigma is used to denote a sum. In physics, there are sigma-hyperons, which are a type of elementary particles. By the way, the use of Greek letters for elementary particles is quite common, as can be seen from this and the above examples.
Τ τ (ταυ, tau)
The Phoenician “taw” gave rise to the letter “tau” in the Greek alphabet, which in oral speech is rendered through the sound “t.” There are similar letters in Cyrillic and Latin alphabets.
We meet this letter in mechanics, mathematics, and chemistry quite often. But perhaps even more often, it is used in astronomy when marking the luminaries in constellations. However, the use of the letter is not limited to these areas. It is even used to mark station intervals in the railroad industry.
In the New Greek version, the letter is called “taf.”
ϒυ (ύψιλον, upsilon)
It is based on the Phoenician “vav.” In the Cyrillic alphabet, it is from this letter that “Izhitsa” is derived. It also indirectly influenced the appearance of U and Yu. The exact analog of this letter has no Russian speech. In some cases, the sound is pronounced as “i” or “u” (this happens often). But when there are vowels on either side of this letter, it becomes a “v” sound in oral speech.
Φ φ (φι, phi)
This is one of the few letters of the Greek alphabet whose origin is not Phoenician. It is, in principle, unknown to this day. In oral speech, the sound is pronounced as “f.”
The use of this letter in various fields is multifaceted. It is used to refer to the golden ratio, a term that is also used by mathematicians, architects, and art critics.
It is also used in electrical engineering, physics, and chemistry. For example, it is used to denote magnetic and light flux and radiation flux in physics. Even internal ballistics uses this letter to denote the dummy coefficient with it.
Χ χ (χῖ, χι, chi)
There will also be no mention here of the ancient Phoenician alphabet. And that is not strange since there was no such letter in ancient Greece either. It was added to the New Greek alphabet. It can be pronounced as “x” or “ch.
Topology, chemistry, and physics use this letter for the symbols used in these sciences.
Ψ ψ (ψι, psi)
Here, too, we will talk about the letter of the New Greek alphabet, which did not exist in Ancient Greece. But despite this, it can be found in many directions and sciences. First of all, it is worth mentioning the Church Slavonic script. Also, we should not forget that the super-golden section is denoted precisely through the letter “psy.”
And also, this letter is part of the names of such important sciences and directions as psychology, psychotherapy, psychiatry. Derivatives of these terms also contain a similar beginning (psychodiagnostic, psycho correction, etc.).
Ω ω (ὦμέγα, omega)
This letter is based on the Phoenician “ein.” As for the Cyrillic prototypes, they are “omega” and “from.” The letter “omega” differs from “omicron” (short “o”), as it conveys a long version of this sound.
The letter that completes the alphabet is traditionally associated with the ending. Alpha and Omega are mentioned in the Bible, which signifies the beginning and the end.
Geometry and physics use this letter to indicate their symbols. And in ballistics, it indicates the mass of a charge.
These were the letters of the modern Greek alphabet. Many of them are of ancient origin; others appeared later. But most of them are used to denote a wide variety of fields of knowledge.
(these letters were used to write numbers)
Below are examples of letters not used in the modern Greek alphabet. However, their historical significance is important, so it is worth considering them.
Ϝ, ϝ (digamma or vav, δίγαμμα or ϝαῦ)
Like ipsilon, it is derived from the Phoenician “vav.” Like the other archaic letters, it is not part of the New Greek alphabet. We know from historical sources that digamma existed as early as Homer’s language. The sound itself was long used in the Aeolian dialect. As for the name, digamma means “double gamma” and is directly related to how the letter looks visually. Although the letter is not in the modern Greek alphabet, mathematicians use it to refer to the digamma function. Accordingly, it has not disappeared without a trace and is not lost in historical sources.
Ͱ, ͱ (heta, ἧτα)
The heta has remained part of the archaic culture and the ancient Greek alphabet, unlike the digamma. It is derived from the Phoenician “heta.” It is pronounced as a semi-open long consonant “x.”
Ϻ, ϻ (san, ϻάν or σαν)
It is based on the Phoenician “tsadi.” Around the 4th century B.C., this letter disappeared from the ancient Greek alphabet. The reason is quite simple and practical. It was superseded by the letter “sigma,” which phonetically similar sound. Thus, there was no need to have two letters in the alphabet at once, which partially duplicated each other.
Ϙ, ϙ or Ϟ, ϟ (koppa, ϙόππα or κόππα)
Koppa is a letter that comes from the Phoenician “kuf.” In oral speech, it conveyed an explosive muffled consonant. It was used in recording the number “90” for a long time. This is due to the peculiarities of the alphabetic number system used in Greece.
Another interesting fact is connected with the letter “koppa.” It was the symbol of Corinth, a famous city in Greece. That is why this letter was used in writing its name.
Ͳ, ͳ or Ϡ, ϡ (sampi, σαμπί)
This letter is also not used in the modern Greek alphabet. In the alphabetic number system, it is responsible for the number “900.” The origin is based on the ancient letter “san.” Interestingly, the authentic name of this letter has not been preserved. The word “sampi” appeared later, so it is not sure what the letter’s original name was.
Letters used in other languages
The influence of some languages on other languages in the stage of their formation is a common practice. The same applies not only to individual languages but also to dialects. Below are two letters of the Greek alphabet that have been used in other languages.
Ϳ, ϳ (γιότ, yot)
Yot is a letter that came from the Greek language into the Albanian language (in particular, the Arnautian dialect is in question). When linguists reconstruct those forms of ancient Greek used many centuries ago, they also use this letter.
Ϸ, ϸ (σω, sho)
At one time, the letter made its way into the alphabet of Bactria for obvious reasons. Alexander the Great conquered the area, so began the expansion of Greek culture into Bactrian culture. It is believed that the letter in oral speech conveyed the sound “sh.” It is important to mention the fact that its name is conventional. What was the original name of the letter, unfortunately, is unknown.
To sum up, it is worth mentioning that the Greek alphabet is interesting not only for its history and modernity. It can also be studied regarding its influence on the other alphabets used earlier and at the present historical stage.