Wednesday, December 13, 2006



The Greek letter sigma is equivalent to s in our alphabet. Those who have not studied Greek but who have studied mathematics may be familiar with sigma in its capital form Σ, which is the mathematical summation symbol. One lower case form of sigma is σ, sometimes called initial-medial sigma because it appears in any position of a Greek word except for the final letter. Another is ς, known as final sigma cause it appears only at the end of Greek words. The English adjective sigmoid refers to something shaped like sigma, such as the lower colon in the human body.

Some editions of Greek texts don't use the symbols Σ, σ, and ς, but instead represent sigma by a semicircular character that resembles our letter C (upper case), c (lower case). This is known as lunate sigma because its crescent shape resembles a half moon (the Latin word for moon is luna). According to the Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek lexicon,
Aeschrio (Fr.1) calls the new moon τὸ καλὸν οὐρανοῦ νέον σῖγμα [the beautiful new sigma of heaven]: hence the orchestra is called τὸ τοῦ θεάτρου σῖγμα [the sigma of the theater], Phot., AB 286: and Lat. writers used sigma of a semicircular couch, Mart.10.48.6, etc.
An example of a modern edition of a classical text that uses lunate sigma is F.H. Sandbach's edition of Menander in the Oxford Classical Text series.

To some (including me) who learned Greek with Σ, σ, and ς, lunate sigma looks a bit odd. William Annis recently posted an entertaining piece called The Lunacy of the Lunate Sigma: A Rant. See also Michael Hendry, What Ever Happened to Lunate Sigmas?

If lunate sigma irritates you, one way to escape from it would be to read or write only asigmatic (sigma-less) texts. The term for a text that intentionally avoids a certain letter is lipogram. A modern example is Ernest Vincent Wright's novel Gadsby (1939), written entirely without the letter e.

The ancients Greeks, who invented so much else, invented the lipogram as well. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, On Literary Composition 14 (tr. William H. Race), writes:
The sigma is neither charming nor pleasant and is very offensive when overused, for a hiss is considered to pertain more to the sound of a wild and irrational animal than to that of a rational being. And so a number of the ancient poets used it sparingly and guardedly, and some even composed entire odes without sigmas.
These ancient poets included Pindar, Lasus of Hermione, Lucius Septimius Nestor, and Tryphiodorus. For more on these lipogrammatists, see Max Nelson, "Pangrams and Lipograms," The Seasonal Stentorian: The University of Windsor Classics Newsletter 2.2 (Winter/Spring 2003) (pdf file format).

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