A Life Of Fiction XCVI
For those of you new to this WordPress site, this site is about me and my writing – and a little about my role-playing, as well. It gives readers a chance to sample my work before purchasing it on the Kindle store; and gives me the chance to say a little about the genesis of each novel, or about the process of writing in general.
All The Alphabet, And More: I am fascinated by words, as I hope that I have evinced in past posts on this blog. But I am also fascinated by letters and the alphabet. Occasionally that fascination has leaked over into my writing. In my experimental novel The Dead, when I used letters of the Greek alphabet as some of my chapter numbers. More on the Greek alphabet a little later.
The English alphabet is based on the Latin alphabet of out Roman conquerors. But we have added letters to that alphabet. There is no J in the Latin alphabet, for example. No J in welsh, either.
We have lost letters from our alphabet, over the years, rather than just add ones. Letters which used to exist include thorn, wynn and yogh. Here come the details:
Æ or æ
The above is the letter ash. It is, as can be seen, two letters run together into one. In Anglo-Saxon it was æsc, meaning ‘ash tree’. In modern English it is often replaced by the letters ae, even when this is incorrect, such as in proper nouns which contain this grapheme. One example of that is Æsir, the name of a branch of the Norse gods.
When I was growing up you used to see the word mediæval in (old) books. Now it is always mediaeval or the American medievil. Go figure.
The above letter is eth, although I have known it as the letter thing. But try and find thing on Wikipedia and you won’t find this letter.
The letter was used for the th sound. I understand that it was used for the ‘hard’ th sound: these clothes, as opposed to thin cloth. The letter was used up until around the end of the 13th century. It is still found in works such as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
The above is the letter called thorn. It was a th sound. The letter, I understand, was generally used for what I think of as the ‘soft’ th sound: thin cloth as opposed to these clothes. The letter is found in runic scripts, called the Futharks.
Thorn was still in use at the time that the unknown northern poet who wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight composed that masterpiece.
The letter was sometimes represented using a modified letter Y. That led to some people mistakenly translating ‘the’ as ‘ye’, as on ‘ye olde shoppe’. But it was never pronounced as a Y. Anybody with a sign ‘ye olde’ simply doesn’t understand the history of our English language (sorry, I can’t help being a pedant).
The above is the letter called wynn. This letter entered the English alphabet from the runic scripts, known as the Futharks. The letter stopped being used around the beginning of the fourteenth century. The letter represented a w sound, and doubtless it disappeared as it was redundant, with a separate letter for w.
Œ or ɶ
The above is the letter ethel, a ligature of o and e. It is no longer used in Modern English, but is found in archaic spellings, such as diarrhɶa for diarrhoea. And my stupid computer is complaining about both spellings of the word, despite the fact that that diarrhoea is in the dictionary, if you get my meaning.
Sorry, nothing against Americans or their isms, but I would like to preserve some of the chaotic spellings of my mother tongue.
Yogh is the next letter I will discuss. Yes, it is the above letter, and not a three. Yogh was a modified g sound. The word night, for example, was originally niȝt, with the yogh being pronounced, rather than being silent. To confuse matters, in some words the letter could be pronounced as a j or as a y. yogh began to disappear from the alphabet when Old English slowly became Middle English.
Because of the fact that it looks like a fancy, tailed lower case z, in some parts of Scotland it became confused with that letter, such as in the name of the Scottish Liberal Democrat politician Menzies Campbell. Yes, his first name is written Menzies, but is actually pronounced closer to Mingus.
Greek alphabet: I said that I would do a bit on the Greek alphabet. I don’t speak or read either Modern or Ancient Greek, but it is useful to know the letters of the Greek alphabet, as they are used in science and mathematics. They also come up in quizzes, occasionally, for those who are fans of such things (I am).
The letters of the Greek alphabet, in order, are alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon, zeta, eta, theta, iota, kappa, lambda, mu, nu (that’s as far as I can do from my memory), xi, omicron, pi, rho, sigma, tau, upsilon, phi, chi, psi and, last but not least, omega.
I’ve mentioned that I used some of the letters to denote chapter headings in one of my works. But the themes of alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, permeate fiction, and I have not been immune from such things. It even extends into my poetry: here is Insect Christ, from the collection Fragments of Arcana:
Walking on water
The insect Christ
Fish and birds
Alpha and omega
So short the life
Caught between the deeps
And the heavens above
A few steps, no more
And then he is gone
Think of how many films or episodes of TV series have Omega in the title: Marvel Comics even did a character called Omega, once. It was not a massive success, although I think that I might have a few issues somewhere. Then there was The Omega Man, a not very good film version of the incredible Richard Matheson novel I Am Legend.
Each letter of the Greek alphabet now has some significance, as evinced by the notes below. I will be brief, as I have rambled on quite a bit.
Alpha: This usually signifies a beginning, being the first letter. The lower case letter was also a symbol for Christians in the first few centuries AD, due to the fact that it resembled an idealised image of a fish. The letter is used for several other things signifying importance, or the primary, such as alpha radiation.
Beta: This is the second, if alpha is the first. It is used in computing and game design, as in the phrase beta testing. There is also beta radiation.
Gamma: I always associate this letter with gamma rays, and the Incredible Hulk – the original comic (and movies), rather than the inferior TV series. Gamma radiation is a real thing, it wasn’t invented just for the comics.
Delta: This is where a river, as it nears a sea, splits into various different channels, such as the Nile Delta. Maybe it looks like the capitalised form of the Greek letter.
Epsilon: This, according to one of my many dictionaries, is an arbitrarily small positive amount in maths.
Zeta: Here we have what is known as the zeta function. Which I would doubtless explain, if I understood what it was.
Eta: I can’t find any use for this other than in naming star systems and the like, such as the Eta Aquarid meteor showers.
Theta: There is such a thing as a theta wave which occurs in the brain. It is a high amplitude pattern which tends to be found in the hippocampus, although it can be found in other areas.
Iota: This has had its meaning become the smallest speck of a thing.
Kappa: Apart from in naming US fraternity houses, I don’t know of another us for this letter.
Lambda: This, apparently, is an uncharged elementary particle, as well as being a letter of the Greek alphabet.
Mu: Ah, the lost continent of Mu – but not, I suspect, named after the letter. Like the other letters here, it turns up in those strange American things called frat houses.
Nu: This has been used as a way of saying new for people who, presumably, reject the orthodoxy of spelling, as in nu-funk and nu-metal and other strange musical genres. But I suspect that the use of nu in this way is not related to the letter.
Xi: I can’t really find another use for this letter. Poor old xi.
Omicron: Omicron Ceti is a star.
Pi: Pi is, of course, a mathematical constant, which anybody who has done maths at school should be familiar with. It is 3.1415926535897932384626433832795… and on and on, the numbers never repeating to form a pattern.
Rho: This can be combined with the letter chi to form the chi-rho, a symbol which is the monogram of Christ.
Sigma: Sigma is used in maths for standard deviation. It is supposed to characterise the width of distribution, in a bit of mathematics which is beyond me.
Tau: This is used in physics for the short-lived tau particle. There is also a form of cross called a tau cross.
Upsilon: This is used for some particles of the meson family.
Phi: There is a type of optical illusion called the phi phenomenon, where things appear to be moving due to flashing lights, and so on, where no movement is actually involved.
Chi: See rho.
Psi: There is a psi particle. It is a type of meson.
Omega: Omega is the last letter of the Greek alphabet, and it signifies finality. I’ve mentioned some of the associations above, and won’t repeat them here.
Even the Greek alphabet has lost letters. In that case the letter which has gone is the digamma, which has been called a semi-vowel, although I understand that it had the sound of a W. Even by the time of Homer the digamma was on the way out, although Homer was certainly aware of it (if there was a single person writing under that name).
There are, of course, a lot of other alphabets around the world. Gujarati has its own alphabet. There is the Cyrillic alphabet, used for Russian and other languages. There are, in fact, a whole host of other alphabets, which I won’t go into here (maybe in some other post, as these things interest me).
Then there are the dead scripts, either of languages which have disappeared, or where different scripts have supplanted them.
There was a Cypriot script, which dates back to at least 1500 BC. That alphabet used letters which represented syllables, rather than individual letters. But I think that I have talked about scripts and alphabets enough for a single post…