COVID-19 was a lesson in Greek letters, one variation at a time
VANCOUVER – The Greek alphabet has arrived on the world stage and in the daily lexicon on waves of the novel coronavirus as the World Health Organization has started naming variants of the Glagolitic script.
As the variants mutated from Alpha to Delta to Omicron, people began to take note of the 24 Greek letters. Omicron is the fifteenth letter of the Greek alphabet. Omega is the last.
In June, an expert committee led by a World Health Organization task force announced it would use the Greek alphabet to name variants.
“These will be easier to remember and more convenient to use than alphanumeric designations,” the document said of naming variants.
âThe Greek alphabet is well established as being generic, as the names of its individual letters have already been used for multiple purposes. “
Mark Pallen, one of the authors of the article, said the scientific method of using letters and numbers is cumbersome and confusing. Most people have resorted to the name of where the variant was first discovered, creating stigma for that country, he noted.
“And so, there was a recognition that something easier and faster was needed.”
Soon after, the World Health Organization decided to use Greek letters.
It was “a bit of an oversight,” he said in an interview, that no one asked permission from the Greeks.
“And we got it wrong, which is a pretty common mistake,” said Pallen, professor of microbial genomics at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. “When people talk about the Greeks, they often mean the ancient Greeks, and they forget that the Greeks still exist as a nation.”
But it seems that the Greeks ignored the association of their variant language with classical Stoicism.
Panayiotis Pappas, professor of linguistics at Simon Fraser University which uses non-binary pronouns, said that “the truth is that it is not remarkable” for any Greek that letters are used to name lethal variants.
And it’s not just the letters, because âso manyâ Greek words are used in science, Pappas said in an interview.
The linguistics teacher reads Greek newspapers and scanned them for reactions to the letters used to name the variants.
“There are many other deadly diseases that have Greek names, and we are not complaining about them.”
Pappas grew up in northern Greece on a small island called Thasos before moving to the United States for his studies and then working at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia.
âThe Greeks don’t even care if the words are mispronounced or something like that,â Pappas said.
“They’ve always taken it as a mark of pride that, you know, we have a civilization that’s about 3,000 years old and that we can contribute to western science.”
Tom Archibald, professor of mathematics at Simon Fraser University, studied Greek in high school in Ontario for three years. His knowledge of modern Greek is âbad enough,â he says, but he can read it using a dictionary.
“I mean, every working mathematician basically knows the Greek alphabet, even though he can’t say it in order.”
Pappas said the use of the Greek alphabet to name variants has sparked greater interest in language lessons.
âThe only thing we have seen is a slight increase in linguistics in our lessons, which explains the origins of languages ââand words, what we call the science of etymology, as more and more students are interested to areas of health sciences, where much of the English word’s core is either Greek or Latin, âsaid the professor.
âWe offer courses that go through these explanations, and they have seen their popularity increase dramatically. People don’t want to learn the language per se, but they do want to understand where these words come from.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on December 24, 2021.