Why all children should learn the Alpha Beta
03 December 2021
The headmaster of my school was a classicist. As a result, we all had to do Latin up to O Level, and in Year 8 half of us had to study Ancient Greek as well.
We had a lousy teacher called Mr Slade, nicknamed Noddy (it's an old pop music reference), and I remember very little of what we did. But one thing has stuck with me. In our first week we had to memorise the Greek alphabet.
α β γ δ ε ζ η θ ι κ λ μ ν ξ ο π ρ σ τ υ φ χ ψ ω
Α Β Γ Δ Ε Ζ Η Θ Ι Κ Λ Μ Ν Ξ Ο Π Ρ Σ Τ Υ Φ Χ Ψ Ω
I can still recite it to this day, with one exception - I always forget "xi", pronounced "ksi" and written in lower case as ξ which is like a squiggly E.
But I digress!
I really didn't enjoy those Greek lessons, but studying the alphabet in Year 8 turned out to have an unexpected benefit. In Year 9 we started encountering Greek letters in maths.
We'd already come across π in circles of course, but now we started seeing angles labelled α β (alpha and beta) and θ (theta), and we began to add things up using Σ (sigma). Soon came δ ε λ μ ρ φ ω to represent things like small changes, angular speed and density. All of this we took in our stride because they were letters we knew, there was no sense of being intimidated by weird symbols that had come out of nowhere.
Greek letters permeate maths and physics, especially at a higher level, and it might reduce some of the intimidating mystique of these subjects if all children were introduced to the ancient alphabet, in a fun history-related way, by the age of 12. My eldest daughter learned the Greek alphabet at her primary school when the class were studying Greek myths, but I think that was unusual.
It's actually quite a κooλ thing to learn.
Fun facts about the Greek alphabet:
- Our word 'alphabet' is short for the 'alpha beta' that Greek children learned. (I'm sure you knew this already, but it had never occurred to me until well into my adult years).
- Another thing that escaped me, until just last week in fact, is that the letter 'omicron' (which we were taught to pronounce rhyming with 'Tom Mick Ron') is closely related to the letter 'omega'. They are both 'o' vowels, but o-micron is the micro(n), or short, sound as in 'hot', while o-mega is the mega, or big, sound, like the exaggerated o in 'toe' or 'dough'.
- I often wondered if the letter ψ (psi), which looks like a trident, is related to Poseidon, the trident-wielding God of the sea. Well it turns out they are not related. But they SHOULD be.
* I find ξ unmemorable because (a) it doesn't look like it sounds, and (b) it's in the 'wrong' place in the alphabet. What on earth is it doing stuck in the middle of K L M N [ksi] O P.... ??