Wednesday, April 01, 2009


The Noble Shapes of the Greek Letters

Patrick Leigh Fermor, Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (1958; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), chapter 19:
The soft murmur of the town was suddenly drowned by the furious jay-like voices of two women below my window, arguing across a narrow lane about something that I couldn't catch. It didn't matter. The point was the inventive richness of the language, the splendour of the vocabulary, the unstaunchable flow of imagination and invective. I often have the impression, listening to a Greek argument, that I can actually see the words spin from their mouths like the long balloons in comic strips; however debased and colloquial the theme, the noble shapes of the Greek letters, complete with their hard and soft breathings, the flicker of accents with the change of enclitic and proclitic and the hovering boomerangs of perispomena sail through the air and, if a piece of high flown language or a fragment of the liturgy should be embedded in the demotic flux, which it often is, iota subscripts dangle. Some letters catch the eye more than others: the perverse triple loop of Xi, the twin concavity of Omega, the bisected almond of Theta, Phi like a circle transfixed by a spear, Psi's curly trident and Gamma's two-pronged fork. As the argument kindles and voices wax louder, the lettering matriculates from italics to capitals and out like dangerous missiles whizz triangles and T-squares and gibbets and acute angles, pairs of Stonehenge megaliths with lintel stones, and half-open springs. At its climax it is as though these complex shapes were flying from the speaker's mouth like flung furniture and household goods, from the upper window of a house on fire. Then suddenly the conflagration subsides as abruptly as it started, the dialectic geometry fades from the air and silence ensues; as it did now.
The perverse triple loop of Xi: ξ

The twin concavity of Omega: ω

The bisected almond of Theta: θ

Phi like a circle transfixed by a spear: φ

Psi's curly trident: ψ

Gamma's two-pronged fork: γ

Triangle (Delta): Δ

T-square (Tau): Τ

Gibbet (Gamma): Γ

Acute angle (Lambda): Λ

A pair of Stonehenge megaliths with lintel stone (Pi): Π

A half-open spring (Sigma?): Σ

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