what’s it all about, alpha?

uc davis boards
It’s the time of year when the Frat Boards are out in force. Not just for Fraternities, but Sororities and other organizations too. I have lived in Davis for seven years and they are all still a mystery to me. Obviously not all these societies are ‘Greek’ (or maybe they are), or rather they don’t all have mystical Greek acronyms, but many of them have big frat houses and spend a lot of October pursuing recruitment activities and initiations (such as ‘hazing’). Fraternities are national, with chapters at many big American schools, and some societies are very old indeed. Some are specialist organizations, such as the ones for Pre-Med students or Latino students, or that fraternity for those really into boating (Rho Rho Rho) and another one for dairy farmers (Mu Mu). (There is probably one for really crap old jokes too, Tee Hee Hee).

Speaking of the Greek alphabet, I was listening to an excellent podcast today, the History of English Podcast by Kevin Stroud. As an avid and excitable enthusiast of language history I was giddy to discover this recently, and listened to all the podcasts so far almost every day on iTunes. It is a history of the English language alright, but is starting from the very beginning, in a super comprehensive way that you do not get in standard English language histories. It does not start from the usual “Angles, Saxons and Jutes crossing the North Sea” angle (excuse the pun, just this once), but from the roots of Proto-Indo-European. As the series has progressed, Kevin Stroud has neither skipped a connection nor simply narrowed the focus into proto-Germanic, but includes anything that is relevant to the development English and shows us why. There was one episode devoted solely to the letter ‘c’. Now I understand that this may not excite you in quite the same way it excites me, but I have listened to that one quite a few times and have already started doing some reading again. I studied Germanic philology as part of my MA in Medieval English and so the episodes on sound shifts and Grimm’s Law made my heart race, as all those hours spent pondering dusty books and dictionaries in Senate House and the Maughan Library came flooding back to me. This was my passion, more so even than drawing, and one I have not had time for these past few years (though I was interviewed on ABC radio in Australia about the topic of my MA thesis last year). Today’s eagerly anticipated episode was about the alphabet, and its origins in Phoenician and subsequently Greek. The move from a syllabic-based script to an alphabetic script was huge, as it made learning to read and write a lot easier, there being far fewer phonemes or letters in a language than syllables. Imagine if we’d stayed with Cuneiform or hieroglyphs, and that show Countdown would have been very different (“a scarab please Carol, and a bird, and a river…”). As I say, Stroud always ties it to English, as that is the podcast’s name, and since we use that alphabet every single day the origins of it are of immense importance to the history of English. If you have an interest in such stuff, I strongly recommend this podcast. More than anything, it is good to listen to while out and about sketching, especially when you sketch Greek letters and can say, ‘Alpha’, ah yes, that used to be a consonant, not a vowel.

6 thoughts on “what’s it all about, alpha?

  1. monbaum says:

    Oooohhh that sounds exciting, I have to check out that podcast!. I studied Linguistics and ended up with a focus on English, phonetics and phonology. My thesis was on “The structure and development of diphthongs in three Southern Hemisphere Englishes”. I had to go back all the way to the GVS to show how it started shifting and still keeps on shifting today. I liked the subject so much, I took six classes of Structure and History classes in various Germanic languages. It’s like genealogy with words/morphemes/phonemes/what-have-you! Completely useless when you come to think of it, but oh so exciting when you start seeing the connections.

    • pete scully says:

      Oooh cool!!! Yes completely useless perhaps but very very exciting. It’s all the connections I love. I see language as being a treasure chest full of things from the past, not just words but ways of seeing and doing things, ideas. I wish I had studied linguistics as a subject (and part of me still wishes to; if I go back to school it’s to do that), but I did philology, and my heart is with historical linguistics. Right I’m off to read more.

  2. borrominibear says:

    I have forwarded this post on to my brother who has very similiar interests!!!!! But I am very upset that you did not tell me you were on OUR ABC radio last year!!!?!

    • pete scully says:

      Well, I kept it a little quiet! It had been a while since I had been in that research so I was worried I’d embarrass myself, and spent the day in between being asked and interviewed poring through all my old notes from my MA, which I thankfully brought over from England. The interview is online still I believe..

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