Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Zeta -- and mazza pizza

The following is most likely false, since I do not really know enough about the field to know if this would be correct, or what I am proposing would be wrong, but I've been thinking about the following recently - the origin of the Greek letter zeta. Everyone equates it with zayin, but I would like to consider the possibility that it comes from tzadi.

Firstly, here is the wikipedia article on the subject of Zeta.

Why should we think it is == to the English letter "z"? Well, in modern Greek, it is pronounced "z" (= the "z" in the Internation Phonetic Alphabet). Furthermore, it has the value of 7 in Greek, being the 7th letter (the Greek letter digamma, = "w," preceding it). Thus, we have:
epsilon (=heh)
digamma (actual name unknown, since it fell into disuse, probably called waw) (=vav)
zeta (=zayin)
eta (=chet)
theta (=tet)
iota (=yud)
kappa (=kaf)
etcetera (and no, etcetera is not a Greek letter)

Thus, the Greek letters parallel the Hebrew letters. Epsilon is an exception. The argument can be made that eta and theta are simply chet and tet. But, zeta follows this pattern, and the latter is not called zayn.

Yet, the position of the letter, together with its current pronunciation, makes it quite likely that the letter = zayin. Wikipedia states that it derived from Phoenician zayin, but took its name froim the eta-theta pattern. And the Roman z and Cyrillic З derive from it.

Why would I put forth צ, tsadi as a possibility? Several reasons.

Firstly, the name of the letter. It does not match the Phoenician (and Hebrew) name zayin. It does, however, quite closely match tsadi, ṣādē.

Secondly, we see in German that the the letter zeta, written "z," stands for the tz sound. To get our English "z" sound, German uses "s." Indeed, in Yiddish, when written in Hebrew letters, the letter tzadi is used to equal the letter zeta (z, pronounced ts) in Roman characters. Furthermore, in German, the letter is no longer in the seventh position, but is at the end of the alphabet. (Though perhaps one of the earlier letters assumes some other quality of zeta...) In Italian, zeta equals either a ts or a dz sound.

According to Wikipedia, is was probably pronounced [z] in Greek even in the Hellenistic age. However, earlier than that, it was not pronounced [z]. Rather, there is a dispute.

Some say it was pronounced [zd] as in Mazda, and some say it was pronounced [dz]. See the arguments for each over there.

Now, [dz] is simply the voiced equivalent of [ts], since [d] is a voiced [t] and [z] is a voiced [s]. And, we see that both these options are available in Italian.

Finally, if we look at the Greek alphabet, we see that where Hebrew and Phoenician have tzadi, Greek has nothing.

Thus, what might have happened - since Greek did not have a [z] sound by itself, it still wanted to match as much as possible the Phoenician alphabet, at least at the beginning. Thus, they moved tzadi and called it zeta, since it matched the pattern of the other two letters which follow, and gave it its usual pronunciation, perhaps though with a voiced equivalent. Thus, at the end of the Greek alphabet, a tzadi equivalent is omitted.


Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Trouble is that the sign itself most closely resembles the Phoenician zayn. There are oodles of Ionian, Athenian, Corninthian &c. inscriptions which show that the early sign for zeta was virtually identical with the zayn: I.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Should be I with the cross bars (sideways H).

In addition, tsade may have been much more subtle than our ts or tz, as in the Arabic version. You can hear such a tsade on this Karaite alphabet page:


As it is, Greek was very spare with silibants and may not have had any use for the tsade, having already converted the samakh to a ks sound.

joshwaxman said...

Right. Thanks. I was thinking to mention that bit about the tzadi possibly being a different sound, but did not take note of the orthographic similarities.

In keeping with what you mention, Greek actually did have an equivalent in the place in the alphabet for tzadi, as can be seen on this wikipedia page for Phoenician alphabet:


they had a letter called Sampi ("like pi), also called Disigma, which became obsolete, and which represented the [ss] or [ks] - and San (from which Sampi may have derived, and whose name comes from Sin or Shin, which apparently corresponded to tzadi and came between pi and qoppa, but was "discarded in favor of Sigma")

I wonder though, if various Greek letters can take the name of one letter and the sound of another - case in point - San - perhaps the name of the letter may indeed derive from Tzadi, even as other elements might derive from elsewhere.

Daniel said...

I'm not making any judgment on the issue but for added perspective see Bereishis Rabba Perek 14, Section 2. Would post it myself but couldn't find a website that allowed for copying and pasting. best,

joshwaxman said...

thanks. good point, and source.

The text, from the following online source,

בעון קמיה דרבי אבהו:
מנין שהנוצר לשבעה חי?
אמר להון: מדידכון, אנא ממטי לכון, זיט"א אפט"א, איט"א אוכט"א:

Thus, zeta means "live" and also corresponds to 7, and eita means death, and corresponds to 8.

So at that point at least, it was in that position in the Greek alphabet.



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