Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Omega

I was listening to chapter 10 of the very excellent "The History of the Alphabet" and learned lots of stuff that made me go "hunh", which I thought I'd share with you.

Firstly, I'll remind you that our Latin alphabet came from the Etruscans, who got it from the Greeks, who got it from the Phoenicians, who got it from the Ancient Egyptians who used it to represent the language of the Semitic-speaking workers in Egypt. Got that?

The Phoenicians didn't have much truck with vowels, but did have a bunch of other sounds that we don't have in the PIE languages. The Greeks on the other hand, did have vowels, so used two of the sound-symbols they wouldn't otherwise use as vowels. These were 'alep (used for the /a/ sound) and 'eyn (used for the /o/ sound).

Initially, the Greeks used just the one symbol, of a circle, to represent the /o/ sound, both long and short. (In fact, many other alphabets also use a circle to represent this sound, possibly because of the shape the mouth makes when producing it.). Short-o is the sound in /hot/ or /body/; long-o is the sound in /hope/ or /bone/.
Omicron, upper and lower case (Wikipedia)

Then at some point around 660BCE, and no-one knows quite why, the Greeks introduced a second symbol to represent the long-o, leaving the original symbol to handle only the short-o.
Omega, upper and lower case (Wikipedia)



Short-o got renamed to omicron, (that is o-micron, where micro=small), and the long-o was called omega (ie, o-mega, where mega=big). (Did you just metaphorically slap your forehead and go "duh! Of course!", like I did when I heard this?)

In this newly expanded Greek alphabet, the new letter, omega, was added to the end of the alphabet. Which is why in the New Testament (primarily written in Greek), God says "I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last" (Book of Revelation).

So why doesn't Latin or English or any of the other languages that use the Latin alphabet have the omega letter any more? The answer is pretty simple - they never did. The Etruscans picked up the Greek alphabet sometime in that period when the Greek alphabet hadn't yet added omega, that is, between 800BCE and 660BCE. (This is supported by archaeological findings too.) And as the Latins took their alphabet from the Etruscans, Latin never had omega either.

At some later point, I'll explain why 'g' is the third letter of the Greek alphabet, but the seventh letter of the Latin one, which is related to why C and G look similar and why hard-c (cut) and hard-g (gut) sound very similar. But that's for another day.

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