Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary.
“Thou whoreson zed, thou unnecessary letter!”
Kent, in King Lear.
Are not the above expositions, the epitome of ingratitude? After providing sundry barbarians with the ‘lights’ of our civilization, nay even the tools with which to record their paltry thoughts, these self-same abounders in uncouthness take issue with the great gifts we have made to them and now dare to question their value and in the case of z, the legitimacy of their parentage as well. And one would suggest that it is these aspersions cast upon the letter zed’s paternity that have led English speakers to blasphemously pronounce the venerable compound glyph X as Z, as well as ks and suggest various detestable alphabet reforms, culminating in George Bernard Shaw’s abomination of a Phonetic Alphabet which made its first pernicious appearance in published print in 1962.
Yet we would not be too hard pressed to find precedents for this sort of behaviour, especially among our Slavonic brethren. It was the venerable Greek saints Cyril and Methodius, who, realizing that if you teach someone how write what they think, you can, at least at the outset, control what they think, introduced a modified form of the Greek alphabet to the Slavs. They have remained largely outside the western world ever since. At first, the grateful Slavs expressed their gratitude by faithfully employing all letters of the Greek alphabet provided to them, including, paradoxically enough, aspirants that were totally unnecessary. Then came the unspeakable typographic reform of 1708, the Grazhdanka, led by the equally unspeakable Peter the Great who in his attempt to tear his Imperium from its Byzantine “Asiatic” past and re-orient it towards the West, not only expended the lives of thousands of serfs in constructing St Petersburg in the frozen bogs of the Baltic, but also removed the letters Ψ, ξ, and ω from the alphabet, citing as a justification that these letters, as opposed to the rest of the alphabet, were ‘foreign’ and obsolete. All this served to do, was to inefficiently extend the amount of space needed to write compound consonants. Thus the city of Pskov, rather than concisely being written ΨΚΟΒ would henceforth be clumsily written as ΠCKOB. What hurts, is not so much that Peter removed some decent and useful letters from the Russian alphabet but that he did so without having the sensitivity to ask us first. This is tantamount to gifting your children a double-storey, four bedroom house in Templestowe that has taken you twenty years of factory overtime to pay off, only to have them sell it behind your back, in order to purchase a two bedroom unit in South Yarra instead.
To add indult to injury, the de-hellenisation of the Russian alphabet did not end there. In 1918, the godless Bolsheviks saw fit to discard Θ, simply on the grounds that their pseudo-proletarian, crimson, Marxist tongues could, Norfcote-fashion, no longer distinguish between the original unvoiced ‘th’ and voiceless, labiodental fricative ‘f.’ All Athanasy’s found themselves overnight being called “Afanasy.” At least the venerable theta was banished from existence by official decree. The letter Y, “Izhitsa”, written in Byzantine style as V and used to write such ecclesiastical terms as MVPO, was merely ignored until it went away.
Even the Romans, with their track-history in mass slaughter and arbitrary annexations of realms were much more sensitive in the way they treated their Greek heritage. They faithfully preserved the legend that it was Evandros, the son of Sibyl who presented them with the gift of alphabet, though in the case of the Roman alphabet, that was probably developed and adapted by the Etruscans and the Romans from a form of West Greek prevalent among Greek colonies in the Italic peninsula. Unlike the Russian ingrates, though the Romans originally considered dropping letters they considered they had no use for, such as Z and Y, they gracefully resolved to retain them, to be utilized in the recording of Greek loan-words, a novel linguistic “Made in Greece” indicator. The hypernationalistic French, who pride themselves on the innate superiority of their tongue have the sensitivity to call the letter Y ‘y-grec,’ (the Greek y) and to retain it in their alphabet. It can therefore be seen how the perfidious Russians are beyond linguistic redemption. They should be compelled through the UN to pay compensation to us, in the form of surplus letters or to re-adopt our alphabet wholesale. As for other nations, such as the Albanians, who spurned a perfectly good Greek-based Tosk alphabet only to throw themselves into the arms of an inferior Roman standard, the less said about them the better. When the linguistic apocalypse comes and the Master Compositor will arraign the nations before Him and quiz them on their fidelity to the instigators of their own alphabetic revelation, it is quite possible that the only peoples that shall be deemed worthy of redemption shall be the Copts, for faithfully preserving their Hellenic alphabet despite centuries of Ishamelitic persecution.
Yet let he who is without error cast the first glyph. For on that terrible day, will we not also be accused of gross ingratitude by the Archangel of Literacy, in harsh, guttural Semitic tones? For what is the Greek alphabet but an expert adaptation of a Phoenician original, expert only in that our ancestors had the novel idea of applying, without license, several consonantal glyphs to the representation of vowels. Though Herodotus was the first to attribute our alphabet to the Phoenicians and to record the belief that it was Cadmus who first brought the Phoenician alphabet to the Greeks at Thebes, we too have attempted to hush up this provenance, dismiss it as inferior and, in the ultimate hubris of all, indulged in the unauthorized discarding of letters and sounds. As a result, our language has been stripped of the phonemes that comprise its heritage. For this, I blame the Peloponnesians and the Athenians who wielded their pride in their so-called ‘refined’ pronunciation of their particular Greek dialect in order to mask their inability to pronounce more complex sounds. Though they managed to pull this off in Greece by imposing their phonemically limited patois upon other Greeks their incompetency is still betrayed in far off Australia today, when in supermarkets around the country, little old ladies pull out their purse and ask “Khow muts?” while pulling their grandchildren’s ears and exclaiming “Sat up.” All these lost phonemes and letters must now be restored, if we are to dislodge the phonemically superior Anglo-Saxons from their global hegemony.
The letter F, a voiced labial-velar approximate, that corresponds with ‘w,’ derived from the Phoenician ‘waw’ and renamed “digamma,” fell out of general use in the seventh century BC. Yet before then, we have tantalising snippets of its use, notably in coins. Ilium, another name for Troy, was known as FΙΛΙΟΝ, pronounced ‘Wilion’ giving rise to the 7th century Mycenaean joke: Q. What were the Danaans doing at Wilion for ten long years? A. I don’t know. Playing with their willies? The word for wine, OINON, was originally written as FOINON, showing just how closely derived the English word is from the Greek. Granted, this sound had become extinct from the Greek language, but that was no excuse for its abolition and the case for its reinstatement is pressing, given that the phoneme has recently returned to the Greek language, notably in the explanation of Greek teenagers on ANT1 sitcoms: “OYAOY,” which could more elegantly and Hellenically be written as “FAF.”
The loss of Qoppa, (Q) a voiceless uvular plosive that exists in all Semitic languages as a ‘K’ sound, but much more throaty, is a savage indictment upon a people that have lost their ancestral glottal dexterity. Except for a few ancient coins (for example in coins from Syracuse we see the word «ΣΥΡΑQΟΣΙΩΝ») and the numerical qoppa, used in Greek legal documentation, which is herein suppressed, owing to NKEE’s diametric opposition to Unicode fonts, this unique letter has not survived. Perhaps in its revived form, it could be used as a measure of satisfaction. For example, one may eat a κολοκύθι and not be satisfied, in which case kappa is acceptable. The wolfing down and subsequent satisfied belching would justify the writing of Qαρπούζι, with a hearty, throaty qoppa.
Sampi is a lazy letter. It takes exactly the form that its name denotes: «Σαν πι.» Yet though it may look like a lower case pi, it is in fact, a ss sound, such as exists in Arabic, which has three forms of s, which was written wherever a σσ exists in Greek today, as in τεσσεράκοντα. Though it exists in the numeral 900 in Greek numbers, sampi could be reinstated in its original function and besides, could be applied to the recording of the serpentine σσσσσσσ that emanates from the mouths of middle-aged Greek coffee-shop patrons on Lonsdale street, whenever a nubile female intrudes upon their field of vision.
Stigma, also a lazy letter, and surviving as the mysterious number 6 (ΣΤ΄) in Greek numerals, is nothing but a ligature connecting the letters σ and τ. Economists and efficiency experts calculate the space saved in replacing those letters with stigma in Κώστας, Στράτος or Στελάρας, and the time saved by Greek school pupils in wondering why they are in grade “St” will revitalize the Greek economy, wholesale. Similarly, San, a letter corresponding to the phoneme “ts” could also save time, when having to write particularly complex words, such as «Τσισιολίνα,» and the fact that its uppercase takes exactly the same form as an uppercase m would be of great delight to schoolchildren who could mystify teachers with written notes about the said teacher’s ΠΟΥΜΑ, or lack thereof.
Perhaps the most pressing case of reinstatement is that of the letter sho, (þ) written as a p with an erect stem. This was a letter introduced into the Greek alphabet by the Macedonian colonists of Central Asia, in order to write Bactrian, an Iranian language. Thus, in Bactrian coinage, we see one of the Zoroastrian deities, Adroxsho, being described as ΑΔΡΟΧþΟ. The re-adoption of this versatile letter will do much to correct the inadequacies of a grossly deficient modern Greek alphabet whose letters do not faithfully record the dialects of its people. Epirot children will be relieved to read the importance of putting on one’s «παπούτþα» before going outside, be able freely to describe their kooky uncles as «þορομπάνταλοι» in print and Pontians will be able to record their quaint greeting, þαιρετίας, with pride.
And what of other unemancipated sounds that exist in Greek that have no representation? Why not invent some more? Did not the Emperor Claudius invent the three Claudian letters in direct response to his mother Antonina’s taunt that: “You have as much chance of becoming Emperor as you do of introducing new letters into the Roman alphabet”? Before taking your leave and advising that today’s article is brought to you by the Hebrew letter Yod, we suggest that for these, the immortal Dr Seuss, offers a few clues:
My alphabet starts with a letter called yuzz. It’s the letter I use to spell yuzz-a-matuzz. You’ll be sort of surprised what there is to be found once you go beyond Z.”
First published in NKEE on 13 August 2007