IN the classroom where I tutor, a five-year-old boy is fighting with the letter E. With knees bent and shoulders cocked, he is poised on his bench as though ready to pounce. His whole being is devoted to this singular, monumental task. I focus on him over the din of the classroom. I see the blunt pencil caught in his grip, and I realize that an entire process is beginning again. Tens of thousands of years of evolution are being re-enacted right in front of me.
Look! This simple figure, an outstretched claw. Or three branches, anchored by a trunk as solid and certain as a Joshua tree. It existed in the early Canaanite alphabet, which developed around 1700 B.C. and is the oldest known. At the time, it was a consonant and faced the other way. But within a thousand years it had become a vowel and had taken its current form among the letters of Ancient Greek. Today it is the most common letter in the English language. It has survived this long, and barring a wholesale conversion to binary code, it should see our species to extinction.
I have been mulling over this kind of thing lately because I, too, have been learning an alphabet. I am learning to speak Modern Greek, and to do this I first had to master the Greek alphabet: twenty-four characters, at once as strange as a lemur and as perfectly familiar as a street sign. I remind myself that this new alphabet is the foundation of my own -- that without it everything I know about letters and words would be entirely different. Still, I regard these ancient symbols as latecomers.
WHEN you are learning a new language, the sounds guide you. Your energy is devoted to apprehending strange phonetic combinations and barely discernible stresses. But when you are learning a new alphabet, your sensitivity is directed to the minute facts of form. A is no longer just A but an odd fusion of shapes -- lazy slants propped up and apart by a firm crossbar. A triangle with poor boundary control. Or two lovers leaning across a table, kissing. And so it is with the Greek letters. Thanks to the Etruscans, most of the letters that found their way across the sea made it into the Roman alphabet, from which ours is derived. The ones that didn't carry over we still know if we are fraternity or sorority members or students of the classics or of physics. But how carefully do we really look?
There is xi (), a beautiful two-humped sea horse, pronounced -- or sneezed -- ksee,and there is a delicately pierced bowl, psi (), pronounced psee. There is theta (), pronounced theeta, elegant and timeless, a circle not quite bisected so that top and bottom bleed into each other, and gamma (), a tree struck by lightning. Then there is eta, pronounced eeta, a simple-sounding letter that leads us on a wonderful transalphabetic journey. Eta always sounds like our long e, but its uppercase looks like our H, while its lowercase resembles our n. The n sound in Greek is represented in lowercase by a character resembling our v. One of the v sounds in Greek looks like our u unless it is uppercase, and then it looks like our Y, which can also sound like our long e -- and we are back at eta.
I am going to all this trouble because I fell in love with a Greek girl during my first year in college. She was a fierce, proud thunderclap of a soul with tightly coiled hair and eyes like Kalamata olives. She had the habit of slipping back and forth between English and Greek mid-sentence, depending on the versatility of the words available to her at the moment. Seeing that I had no choice in the matter, I went out and bought a Greek phrase book, the last few pages of which contained a wonderfully injudicious English-Greek lexicon. Here I was offered the Greek word for "rangefinder" (apostasiometro), but a translation for "if" was nowhere to be found. I am still waiting for the chance to say "Excuse me, where is your rangefinder?"
In the face of dire warnings to the contrary, I skipped over the more ponderous sections of my phrase book and came to rest on the alphabet page. I practiced the characters over and over, big and bold across clean sheets of notebook paper, small and studied down the margin of my introductory-psychology textbook. I put the uppercase of each letter next to the lowercase, as on the green banners that wrap around kindergarten classrooms. The final flourish of a lowercase xi, the reverse hook and belly of a small zeta (), carved like a chant into my memory. Forty-eight symbols I would count -- and I always counted.
Eventually I committed the alphabet to memory, and could recite it like a pledge, with a fine accent. In the process I became something of a pronunciation snob. I reminded myself of a tourist who has stayed somewhere just long enough to develop a measured disdain for his newly arrived compatriots, cringing when I was invited to a party at Kye Sye, or when my statistics professor asked us to calculate the sigmuh of voting trends in Dubuque. Seeghma, I thought. Soften the g. Here was I -- a student to whom Achilles was a tendon and Homer a Simpson -- suddenly fancying myself one of the last outposts of classical civilization.