The History of the Greek Alphabet
It has been in use since the late ninth or the early eighth century for writing the Greek language. In history, it is the first alphabetic script that has distinct letters for consonants and vowels. In the early classical and archaic times, there were numerous local variants of the Greek alphabet. However, as the fourth century was reaching its end, the Euclidean alphabet became the standard. Even today, the Greeks use this version to write in their language. The Euclidean alphabet consists of 24 letters.
How did it All Start?
It may come as a surprise to you, but the Greek alphabet, which is still in use today, is actually more than 2,500 years old. Although it is pretty old, you should not credit the Greeks for the invention of an alphabet. It was the Phoenicians, an ancient culture, who were the first to develop the alphabet. The idea of having a written language was of the Phoenicians, and it was from them that the Greeks got inspired. The Greeks surely did improve the written language by adding vowels. After acquiring a written language, they sat down to pen down all their legends and myths. From these stories and narratives, we came to know so much about the ancient culture of Greek.
Looking at the Letters
We all remember our vowels – a, e, i, o and u, right? Just like the English alphabet, the Greek alphabet also comprises vowels. Here is an interesting fact- the term ‘alphabet’ is actually derived from alpha and beta, which are the first two letters of the Greek alphabet. As opposed to the English alphabet with 26 letters, the Greek alphabet constitutes 24 letters. Here they are listed in alphabetical order:
The Greek alphabet starts with ‘alpha’ and ends at ‘omega’. You can call these the A and Z of their alphabet. When you look at these letters, some of them might look familiar. We have all come across “alpha” at various places. It is often used when talking about something as primary or first, such as in “alpha dog”, “alpha male”, and other similar phrases. It is because ‘alpha’ is the very first letter of the Greek alphabet. Another example would be pi, the letter. For years, it has been used as the symbol and name for the mathematical constant. In your college, you may also come across various secret societies known as sororities and fraternities. Such groups create what is called the Greek system in universities and colleges. The combinations of several Greek letters form their names. (See What are Food that Starts with the Letter X?)
The Greek Alphabet in Today’s Times
The Cyrillic and Latin scripts are the descendants of the Greek alphabet. Just like these two, Greek started with only one form of every letter. The letter case differentiation was gradually developed, which distinguished the lowercase from the uppercase in parallel with the Latin in the modern era. Conventional transcriptions and sound values for some of these letters are different in Modern and Ancient Greek usage.
The pronunciations of Greek have changed drastically today from what they were in the fifth century. Even the diacritics used by the ancient and modern Greeks are different. In today’s time, the Greek alphabet is a lot more than its significance in penning down the Greek language in modern and ancient forms. It has become a source of technical labels and symbols in various science, mathematics, and other fields.