Six Days

On learning a new alphabet

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.

This attitude didn't win me many friends. But I did start reading more, and I imagined myself a kindred spirit of Eric Partridge, the distinguished etymologist who, in the introduction to his Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, wrote of his method, "The transliteration of Greek words, in particular, has been more exact than in several dictionaries one might, but does not, name."

I also discovered that it is less complicated to love a language than to love a person, and so when things with the Greek girl didn't go as planned, I managed instead to fall madly in love with Greek. It is not difficult to do this. Spoken Greek grabs you and wraps you up in its soothing, rapid-fire cadences. No wonder we've looked to Greece for so many of our great oratorical traditions: the language seems built purely to indulge the pleasure of speaking. But it does more than that. I have found that Greeks seem to have an instinctive and deep understanding of the basis of their language. It is as if Greek itself were encoded with the tools to decipher its history; the more you speak, the more you learn. And the more you learn, the more you discover that in a culture that thrives on debate, language is no less debatable than anything else.

Take aletheia, for instance. Loosely translated, it is Greek for "truth." Why? The German philosopher Martin Heidegger offered a carefully reasoned -- and poetic -- etymology. The root lath in Greek means "to be concealed," he explained, and the prefix a- means "without." So to be truthful in Greek, according to Heidegger, is literally to reveal, to uncover -- a better lesson than could ever be learned from our abstract notions of "accuracy" or "authenticity."

Giorgos Patios thinks this is absurd. Giorgos was my waiter at the Taverna Gorgona, a well-kept roadside café in Perissa, on the Greek island of Santorini. I had gone to the Gorgona to avoid the sun, drink strong coffee, and stare out at the street -- that is, to be like a Greek man. With my practiced accent and command of pleasantries, I thought I fit in nicely. The sun-bleached Herald Tribune on my table was a mistake.

Giorgos came over and started talking to me in English. Soon we were on to the subject of language, and I asked him about aletheia. He gave me a long, convoluted answer that sounded well rehearsed and had nothing to do with uncovering anything. So Heidegger didn't have it right? I asked. "Of course not,"Giorgos replied. But Heidegger was a student of Ancient Greek, I protested. Giorgos smiled a dismissive, chipped-tooth smile at me. "Heidegger was a clown,"he said.

So there.

BACK in the classroom, I hold my gaze on the unnoticing boy. Of course, he doesn't care about any of this; he just wants to write his E. But the E is fighting back. I am lucky to witness this, I think. In slow, patient steps, the boy is teaching himself movements, groups of movements, that we have never stopped trying to master. In his naiveté the boy draws the branches of the E first, and connects them after. No adult would spend enough time on one letter to make this method worthwhile.

But maybe we've forgotten something important. After all, the ability to see things in pieces is at the heart of two of the biggest developments in the history of writing: the alphabet and the movable-type printing press. In our day, of course, it is the basis of the computer. Ones and zeroes -- the simplicity permits the complexity.

Today the boy writes in pieces. Branch, branch, branch, trunk. But as he becomes more comfortable fitting together these odd groups of shapes -- these trees, fingers, swans, sea horses -- he will stop seeing them. Soon, like all the older children, he will be writing just letters.

Maybe that's why I feel this strange connection to him now: we are both following these shapes through their tangled histories, watching them in all their mysterious transformations. We feel the same excitement and wonder that the early Semitic scribes must have felt as they realized that each syllable of their language could be separated into discrete characters. Aleph-beth. They saw more than just the shapes too. Aleph is ancient Hebrew for "ox"; turn A upside down and see what you get. The alphabet is not just letters; it is alive.

James Ussher, the seventeenth-century Irish archbishop best known for his painstaking calculation of the moment when light was created (at midday on October 23, 4004 B.C.), also understood the necessity of learning piece by piece. Indeed, he considered it divinely ordained. Why should Creation as a whole have happened over six days, rather than in one timeless, inconceivable instant? "To teach us the better to understand their workmanship," Ussher reasoned, "even as a man which will teach a child in the frame of a letter, will first teach him one line of the letter, and not the whole letter together."

Soon the boy will discover all this for himself. But not before going through the necessary steps. First branches, then trunk. First one way, then the other. E is as simple, and as complex, as it will ever be.

Jesse Wegman is an assistant producer of National Public Radio's

Illustration by Jeffrey Fisher

The Atlantic Monthly; May 1999; Six Days; Volume 283, No. 5; pages 38 - 40.