The Greek Alphabet: Making The Strange Familiar

In his review of Patrick Leigh Fermor‘s The Broken Road: From The Iron Gates to Mount Athos (eds. Colin Thubron and Artemis Cooper, New York Review Books, 2014) Daniel Mendelsohn writes:

His deep affection and admiration for the Greeks are reflected in particularly colorful and suggestive writing. There is a passage in Mani in which the letters of the Greek alphabet become characters in a little drama meant to suggest the intensity of that people’s passion for disputation:

I often have the impression, listening to a Greek argument, that I can actually see the words spin from their mouths like the long balloons in comic strips…:the perverse triple loop of Xi, the twin concavity of Omega,…Phi like a circle transfixed by a spear…. At its climax it is as though these complex shapes were flying from the speaker’s mouth like flung furniture and household goods, from the upper window of a house on fire.

I first encountered Greek letters, like most schoolchildren, in my mathematics and physics and chemistry classes. There was π, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter; ω, the frequency of a harmonic oscillator and later, infinity in set theory; λ, the wavelength of light; θ, ubiquitous in trigonometry; Ψ, the wave function of quantum mechanics; Σ, the summation of arithmetic and geometric series; a whole zoo used to house the esoteric menagerie of subatomic particles; and many, many more. The Greek alphabet was the lens through which the worlds of science and mathematics became visible to me; it provided symbols for the abstract and the concrete, for the infinitely small and the infinitely large.

I never learned to read in Greek but the Greek alphabet feels intimately familiar to me. Perhaps the most familiar after English.

I first saw Greek texts in the best possible way: Greek versions of Aristotle and Plato in my graduate school library, intended for use by those who specialized in ancient philosophy. (These texts were in classical Greek.) I took down the small volumes from the shelf and opened their pages and looked at the text. It was incomprehensible and yet, recognizable. I could see all the letters, those old friends of mine: the α and the β used to denote the atoms of a language for propositional logic, the Γ of the generalized factorial function, the Δ of differences; they were all there. But now they were pressed into different duties.

Now, they spoke of ethics and metaphysics and politics, of generation and corruption; their forms spoke of the Forms. Now they were used to construct elaborate philosophical systems and arguments. But even as they did so, I could not help feeling, as I looked at the pages and pages of words constructed out of those particles, that I was looking at the most abstruse and elaborate mathematical text of all. It was all unknown quantities, an endless series of fantastically complex mathematical expressions, one following the other, carrying on without end. Yes, it was all Greek to me.  And yet, I still felt at home.

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