Why learn the Greek alphabet the boring way?


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The idea of learning an ancient language can be exhilarating and intriguing… in an Indiana Jones sort of way. But languages like Ancient Greek lose their appeal fast when you realise that, while all you want is to savour Plato’s original thoughts, you struggle to even get through the first words of his text.

Σωκράτης κατέβην χθὲς εὶς Πειραιᾶ μετὰ Γλαύκωνος τοῦ ᾿Αρίστωνος…  “

Excluding today’s Greeks and scholars of Coptic, there is no one who really looks at these crazy symbols and says “oh my, they’re easy”. I probably chewed the rubber right off the end of my pencil when I was first introduced to Greek characters in high-school. The good news is that once these magical characters are stuck in your head, there is no way that they can be unstuck. And sticking them there really does not have to be a big deal. For me it was – but that’s because I was taught the boring way… “alpha is a, beta is b, gamma is g, del….” – yawn. There has to be a better way of learning them. Right?

Ten years after my first meeting with Greek characters, my colleagues Monica, Maria and I built an eLearning web application called AncientGeek (view in Github!) aimed at learners of all levels of Ancient Greek. Right from the start we were faced with the problem of how to display the letters – the starting point of it all. We had to design something that would hold our users’ attention – not something that would make them want to immediately open a new browser tab and escape to Facebook. So we decided for a ‘visual’ approach and started drawing the things that particular letters reminded us of. We soon found out that by associating a picture with a letter, even our ‘Greek-ignorant’ colleagues remembered them more easily.

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Take the example of saūros, meaning lizard. The picture we chose in order to explain the letter sigma (an “s” in roman characters) was that of a dinosaur with an “s-like” tongue. By representing the sigma in this way, we also took the opportunity to explain the etymology of the word “dinosaur”, which actually means ‘terrible lizard’ from the Greek deinos + saūros. We hoped that the association letter-picture-etymology would not just help our users memorise the letters, but also understand just how many of the words we use today come from Greek. The letter nu (“n” in roman characters) is the first letter of the word naūs, meaning ship – which is now the basis for the English word ‘nautical’. By drawing the Greek letter nu as the mast of a ship, it becomes easier to remember the shape and sound of the letter, which otherwise would easily be confused with the roman ‘v’.

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We applied this to every single character and by using Adobe Illustrator made the pictures beautiful and memorable. We exhibited the letters, together with the AncientGeek application at the Long Night of Science (Lange Nacht der Wissenschaften) at the University of Leipzig, and found that even children enjoyed scrolling through the letters and testing their mnemonic abilities.

So here below I display the end result for those of you who would like to learn or refresh your knowledge of the Greek letters. We know them all – how many can you remember?!


(Design by monicalent.com)