Anyone who follows the progress of the coronavirus knows that the latest variants are designated by letters of the Greek alphabet.  The newest one is called Omicron.  (It has been detected in more than 65 countries.)   

According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, when it was detected in South Africa, the World Health Organization (WHO) had already used up 12 of the Greek’s alphabet 24 letters – Alpha to Mu – to label strains that were at least considered “variants of interest.”  

Next in line was Nu, which led many to wonder if we were going to have to talk about news of the new Nu variety.  (For those not familiar, the Greek letters are as follows: alpha, beta, gamma, delta, epsilon, zeta, eta, theta, iota, kappa, lambda, mu, nu, xi, omicron, pi, rho, sigma, tau, upsilon, phi, chi, psi and omega.)  To spare people the phonetic confusion of “Nu” and “new”, the WHO decided to skip over that letter.  

But after comes “Xi”, typically pronounces in English like the first syllable of “xylophone.” The WHO gave that one a pass as well – because, as officials latter explained, it is a common last name.  The name in question has nothing to do with Greek, though.  The Chinese family name pronounced like “she” is typically transliterated in English as “Xi”, and the most prominent person with that family name is Chinese president Xi Jinping.  

Rather than choose Xi, WHO stuck to its policy of avoiding  “causing offense to any cultural, social, national, regional, professional or ethnic groups, in naming of disease, thus Omicron was selected.  The actual origins of the letter name break it down as “o micron.”  “Mikron,” a form of “micros,” means little, so it is literally a “little O,” that contrasts with the final letter of the Greek alphabet, “omega.”  Omega comes from “o mega,” or “large o.”

The Alphabet And The Language – History

The Encyclopedia Brittanica indicates that Greek has been spoken in the Balkan peninsula since around the third millennium BC, or possibly earlier. The earliest written evidence is a Linear B clay tablet found in Messenia that dates to between 1450 and 1350 BC, making Greek the world's oldest recorded living language. (Linear B is a syllabic script that was used for writing Mycenaean Greek, the earliest attested form of Greek. The script predates the Greek alphabet by several centuries.)

The Greek alphabet  has been used since 900 BC to write the Greek language. It is the first writing system using a separate symbol for each vowel and consonant and the oldest alphabetic system that is still in use. Greek letters today are used for writing modern Greek and symbols in economics, mathematics and science. The Greek alphabet has its origin in the Phoenician counterpart  and in turn gave rise to the Gothic, Glagolitic, Cyrillic, Coptic, and Latin alphabets.

The early Greek alphabet was based on the Semitic alphabet of the Phoenicians. It is different from the linear and hieroglyphic scripts preceding it in that each symbol represents a single consonant as opposed to a syllable. In contrast, the Phoenician alphabet consists of 22 characters with vowel sounds built into the symbols.  Greeks modified the Phoenician alphabet by changing some of the symbols as well as creating separate vowels. They also made their alphabet more phonetically correct.

 Greek historian Barry Powell believes that the Greek alphabet was created for the purpose of writing down the Homeric verses of the Iliad and the Odyssey. But it is now considered highly likely that a Euboian first adapted the alphabet and from there it was diffused all over Greece. And it is also believed that the alphabet was transmitted from Phoenicia around 800 BC.

With the invention of the Greek alphabet writing began to be used for a variety of purposes. Whereas Linear B seems to have only been used for inventories and lists, the Greek alphabet was initially used for more literary purposes. Writing became not simply a means of recording events, but also an art form in itself.

Final Thoughts

Greek is one of the oldest written languages on the earth, one of the first Indo-European languages ever written, and the language with the longest history of alphabetic graphology on the planet. In the still-today heavily oral culture, there has been, except for one gap early on, some literacy for at least three and a half millennia (more than twice as long as our language has existed), wide-spread for about two and a half. And so, the Greeks have always had great access to the minds of their ancestors, and always been aware of the special beauty and power of their own tongue. Indeed, the word barbarian means, basically, one who does not speak Greek.  

Max Sherman is a medical writer and pharmacist retired from the medical device industry.  His new book “Science Snippets” is available from Amazon and other book sellers. It contains a number of previously published columns.  He can be reached by email at  maxsherman339@gmail.com.