Being one of the most prominent and influential civilizations in the history of mankind, the ancient Greeks surely left their mark in the world. In today’s article we will examine the letters of the Greek alphabet, the symbols that have been used in many scientific areas, art and literature since the dawn of this ancient civilization.
Over the centuries, the letters of the Greek alphabet have gone through various changes and modifications.
According to the Greek Alphabet Code, the Greek alphabet as we know it today, has been heavily modified from its original form. Despite this, however, the modernized Greek alphabet letters still hold the same meanings.
Greek symbols are largely used to signify measurements, constants, and values in the fields of science, mathematics, and engineering. Meanwhile, groups and sectors have adopted some of the ancient Greek letters to be part of or compose organizations’ entire names.
While the Greek alphabet only has 24 letters making it two letters short of the Latin alphabet that has 26, the former is composed of both upper and lowercase letters. Each of the symbols, which are 48 in total, is used individually to represent various measurements and values.
Now, let us take a look at the history of the Greek alphabet — how it was formed and how scientists and mathematicians came to use the Greek letters in their fields. If you would like to learn about the uses and meanings of individual letters/symbols, please use the Table of Contents menu above to jump to that section.
Greek Alphabet History and Origins
It is thought that the Greek alphabet has been developed around 1000 BCE. It is believed to be based on the North Semitic Alphabet of Phoenicia and composed of 24 letters, seven of which are vowels.
Even though the Greek alphabet was widely used in Greece and throughout the Greek Empire, and later on became the basis of other alphabets, the Greek symbols are believed to have actually originated from earlier civilizations. It is believed that the rich trades that occurred during ancient times in and around the Mediterranean inspired the creation of these symbols.
Among the major influences related to the Greek alphabet were the Phoenicians. Sometime around 750 BC, Greece began to adopt the Phoenicians’ language system. The Mycenaeans and Minoans are believed to be other possible sources of inspiration for the Greek alphabet. These two communities were the other main groups that had close contact with the Greeks.
Ultimately, the Greek alphabet that we know today is the successor of the Phoenician alphabet.
Back in the fifth century BCE, there were two documented similar forms of the Greek alphabet, namely, the Chalcidian and Ionic.
The Chalcidian alphabet was thought to be the origin of the Etruscan alphabet as well as the Latin alphabet, which is the basis of a majority of European alphabets.
Meanwhile, the people of Athens adopted the Ionic alphabet, which is still widely used in modern Greece.
Originally, the Greek alphabet was written purely in uppercase. However, three different methods were created to make writing easier. These are the uncial, which allows connecting capital letters, and the more popular minuscule and cursive. Minuscule is the primary basis of Greek handwriting.
Why Are the Greek Alphabet Letters Used in Science and Mathematics?
There are a lot of letters and symbols used in math and science and the symbols of the Greek alphabet are among the most popular ones.
The origins of how the Greek letters were used in math and science can be traced back to the early philosophers, such as Aristotle and Diophantus.
As Greeks, they used the letters from the Greek alphabet to represent variables and constants in their formulas and equations.
Even though younger philosophers, scientists, and mathematicians used their own alphabet or symbols to represent different values and variables, those that used Greek letters were passed down to the modern generations.
The use of Greek alphabet letters as mathematical and scientific symbols has its advantages. For one, the Greek symbols are more distinctive than the universal English alphabet. Because of this, it’s not easy to mistake one symbol for another.
Greek Symbols, Their Meanings and Uses
As mentioned above, there are a total number of 24 letters in the Greek alphabet. Here is how these letters are used and what they represent in today’s world.
Alpha (Α / α)
Alpha (ἄλφα) is the first letter of the Greek alphabet. It has a value of 1 in the Greek numeral system. The Alpha symbol is widely used in different fields. The letter is also used as a word in the English language where it means “first”, “beginning”, and “dominant”.
It is found to have originated from the letter aleph, which is of Phoenician and Hebrew origins. Meanwhile, the Latin and Cyrillic letters A are known to have been derived from the Greek alphabet’s letter alpha.
In math and science, the lowercase letter alpha (α) is used to represent various concepts, including alpha particles, alpha radiation, angular acceleration, and thermal expansion coefficient. The lowercase alpha is more widely used because the uppercase basically looks like the Latin A.
- Uppercase Alpha: Α
- Lowercase Alpha: α
Beta (Β / β)
Beta (βῆτα) is the second letter of the Greek alphabet. It has a value of 2 in the Greek numeral system. The Beta symbol is used across different industries, from finance to computing and engineering.
Derived from the Phoenician letter beth, the beta sign is the origin of the Roman and Cyrillic letters B.
Probably the most popular use for the beta letter is its representation of the software development phase wherein a software or program is likely completed, but needs to be tested to detect possible problems. It is also used in finance as a measurement of investment portfolio risk.
- Uppercase Beta: Β
- Lowercase Beta: β
Gamma (Γ / γ)
Gamma (γάμμα) is the third letter of the Greek alphabet. It has a value of 3 in the Greek numeral system. It was derived from the Phoenician letter that represented the /g/ phoneme, 𐤂 gīml. Similarly, it is also related to the Hebrew letter gimel ג.
There are various uses for the Gamma symbol, both the upper and lowercase signs. The lowercase gamma, for instance, is used to represent gamma radiation, surface energy, and the Lorentz factor. Meanwhile, the uppercase Gamma is used to denote reflection coefficient, circulation (as in fluid mechanics), and gamma distribution.
- Uppercase Gamma: Γ
- Lowercase Gamma: γ
Delta (Δ / δ)
Delta (δέλτα) is the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet. It has a value of 4 in the Greek numeral system. It was derived from the Phoenician letter dalet. Meanwhile, letters that originated from delta include the Latin D.
Both the uppercase and lowercase Delta are widely used in various fields of study. The uppercase Delta symbol, for instance, denotes change in any changeable value.
It also represents the Laplace operator, as well as the discriminant of a polynomial equation. Meanwhile, the lowercase Delta denotes a functional derivative in functional calculus, the degree of vertex in graph theory, and deflection in engineering mechanics.
- Uppercase Delta: Δ
- Lowercase Delta: δ
Epsilon (Ε / ε)
Epsilon (έψιλον) is the fifth letter of the Greek alphabet. It has a value of 5 in the Greek numeral system. It is known to have been derived from the Phoenician letter He, while the Roman and Cyrillic letters E are said to have originated from it.
The uppercase Epsilon symbol is not often used to denote values and variables because of its similarity to the Latin E.
The lowercase epsilon, however, is used widely in math and science. In calculus, a small positive quantity is typically represented by the lowercase Epsilon. In physics, the small Epsilon symbol signifies the permittivity of a medium.
- Uppercase Epsilon: Ε
- Lowercase Epsilon: ε
Zeta (Ζ / ζ)
Zeta (ζήτα) is the sixth letter of the Greek alphabet. It has a value of 6 in the Greek numeral system. It was believed to have been derived from the Phoenician letter zayin, while the Roman letter Z was derived from it.
The uppercase Zeta is not widely used as a symbol because of its similarity with the Latin Z. The lowercase Zeta, on the other hand, represents various constants and variables, such as the vorticity in the ocean and atmosphere.
It also represents electrokinetic potential in colloidal systems, as well as the damping ratio of an oscillating system.
- Uppercase Zeta: Ζ
- Lowercase Zeta: ζ
Eta (Η / η)
Eta (ἦτα) is the seventh letter of the Greek alphabet. It has a value of 8 in the Greek numeral system. It is said to have been derived from the Phoenician letter heth, while the Latin H rose from it.
In information theory, the uppercase Eta symbol represents a discrete random variable’s entropy.
Meanwhile, the lowercase Eta symbol is used to represent a number of things, such as the hapticity in chemistry and elasticity in economics, among many others.
- Uppercase Eta: Η
- Lowercase Eta: η
Theta (Θ / θ)
Theta (θήτα) is the eighth letter of the Greek alphabet. Derived from the Phoenician letter teth, it has a value of 9 in the Greek numeral system.
The lowercase Theta symbol represents a plane angle in geometry and the potential temperature in metrology.
Meanwhile, the uppercase Theta sign denotes the dimension of temperature, as well as a dimensionless temperature in transport phenomena.
- Uppercase Theta: Θ
- Lowercase Theta: θ
Iota (Ι / ι)
Iota (aɪˈoʊtə) is the ninth letter of the Greek alphabet. Derived from the Phoenician letter Yodh, it is the origin of the Latin letters I and J. It has a value of 10 in the Greek numeral system.
In programming language, Iota is used to represent consecutive integers. Meanwhile, in logic, the lowercase Iota symbol represents the definite descriptor.
- Uppercase Iota: Ι
- Lowercase Iota: ι
Kappa (Κ / κ)
Kappa (κάππα) is the 10th letter of the Greek alphabet. It has a value of 20 in the Greek numeral system. It was thought to originate from the Phoenician letter kaph. The letter K we use today was derived from this Greek letter.
There are also various uses for the lowercase and uppercase Kappa symbols. For instance, in graph theory, the connectivity of a graph is represented by the lowercase Kappa.
Meanwhile, the uppercase Kappa is used to represent a compound’s denticity.
- Uppercase Kappa: Κ
- Lowercase Kappa: κ
Lambda (Λ / λ)
Lambda (λάμ(β)δα) is the 11th letter of the Greek alphabet. With a value of 30 in the Greek numeral system, it was derived from the Phoenician letter Lamed. It gave birth to the Latin L.
The uppercase Lambda represents the lambda particle, a subatomic particle. Meanwhile, it denotes the equivalent conductance of an electrolyte solution in electrochemistry.
The lowercase Lambda symbol, on the other hand, is popular for its use in evolutionary algorithms, indicating the number of offspring that will be generated in each generation of a population.
- Uppercase Lambda: Λ
- Lowercase Lambda: λ
Mu (Μ / μ)
Mu (μῦ) is the 12th letter of the Greek alphabet. It has a value of 40 in the Greek numeral system and is known to be derived from the Egyptian hieroglyph that represented water.
As a symbol, the lowercase Mu sign has been used for measurements, mathematics, physics, engineering, computer science, chemistry, biology, pharmacology, orbital mechanics, and even music.
Among its popular use is for representing linear density in one-dimensional objects, as well as dynamic viscosity in fluid mechanics.
- Uppercase Mu: Μ
- Lowercase Mu: μ
Nu (Ν / ν)
Nu (νι) is the 13th letter of the Greek alphabet. With a value of 50 in the ancient Greek numeral system, it was derived from the Phoenician letter Nun. It is the equivalent of the Latin N.
In symbology, the uppercase Nu symbol is not used because of its similarity with the Latin N.
The lowercase Nu symbol, on the other hand, has several uses. Among these is to represent the degree of freedom in statistics and frequency of a wave in physics.
- Uppercase Nu: Ν
- Lowercase Nu: ν
Xi (Ξ / ξ)
Xi (ξι) is the 14th letter of the Greek alphabet. It has a value of 60 in the Greek numerical system. Derived from the Phoenician letter Samekh, it is a distinct form of the Greek letter Chi. It is also the origin of the Latin X.
Both the upper and lowercase Xi symbols have uses in symbology. The uppercase Xi symbol, for instance, represents cascade particles in particle physics, the Z notation, the partition function, and the Riemann Xi function.
Meanwhile, the lowercase Xi symbol is used to denote random variables, the extent of reaction in physical chemistry, and correlation function in astronomy, among others.
- Uppercase Xi: Ξ
- Lowercase Xi: ξ
Omicron (Ο / ο)
Omicron (όμικρον) is the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet. It has a value of 70 in the Greek numeral system. The Roman and Cyrillic letters O originate from it. It is said to have been derived from the Phoenician letter Ayin.
The uppercase Omicron symbol was used in mathematics to signify the Big O notation. However, because of its similarity with the Roman/Latin letter O, it fell out of favor.
- Uppercase Omicron: Ο
- Lowercase Omicron: ο
Pi (Π / π)
Pi (πι) is the 16th letter of the Greek alphabet. With a value of 80 in the Greek numeral system, it was derived from the Phoenician letter Pe and was the basis for the Cyrillic Pe and Coptic Pi.
When it comes to symbolism, who wouldn’t recognize the Pi symbol (3.14159), which is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter?
Other uses for the lowercase Pi include representing the prime-counting function in mathematics and the inflation rate in macroeconomics.
Meanwhile, the uppercase Pi is used to symbolize osmotic pressure in chemistry and viscous stress tensor in continuum physics.
- Uppercase Pi: Π
- Lowercase Pi: π
Rho (Ρ / ρ)
Rho (ῥῶ) is the 17th letter of the Greek alphabet. It is based on the Phoenician letter Res. Its value in the Greek numeral system is 100.
In math and science, the lowercase Rho is used to denote mass, air, and charge density, as well as resistivity.
It also represents prime constant, correlation coefficient, and spectral radius, among other variables and constants.
- Uppercase Rho: Ρ
- Lowercase Rho: ρ
Sigma (Σ / σ / ς)
Sigma (σίγμα) is the 18th letter of the Greek alphabet. It represents the value of 200 in the Greek numeral system. It was derived from the Phoenician letter Shin.
In science and math, both the upper and lowercase Sigma symbols are widely used. The uppercase Sigma’s most popular use is to symbolize the summation operator.
Meanwhile, the lowercase Sigma is used to signify sigma factor, sigma receptor, elasticity of substitution, and sigma constant, among others.
- Uppercase Sigma: Σ
- Lowercase Sigma: σ or ς (in word-final position)
Tau (Τ / τ)
Tau (ταυ) is the 19th letter of the Greek alphabet. With a value of 300 in the Greek numeral system, this symbol was derived from the Phoenician letter Taw. The Roman letter T is derived from Tau.
The uppercase Tau is not generally used as a symbol. Meanwhile, the lowercase Tau symbol is used in various ways. For instance, it represents the dose interval in pharmacokinetics.
- Uppercase Tau: Τ
- Lowercase Tau: τ
Upsilon (Υ / υ)
Upsilon (ύψιλον) is the 20th letter of the Greek alphabet. It has a value of 400 in the Greek numeral system. Upsilon is the Greek version of the Phoenician Waw.
The Upsilon symbol is used in a few ways. A variation of the uppercase Upsilon symbol represents the Upsilon particle. Another variation is used in astrophysics to represent mass-to-light ratio.
- Uppercase Upsilon: Υ
- Lowercase Upsilon: υ
Phi (Φ / φ)
Phi (ϕεῖ) is the 21st letter of the Greek alphabet. It represents a value of 500 in the Greek numeral system. It is thought to have been derived from the Phoenician Qoph.
The lowercase Phi symbol has many uses. Among the things that it represents are the magnetic flux in physics, the golden ratio, and the work function of a surface.
Meanwhile, the uppercase Phi sign is used to represent the golden ratio conjugate.
- Uppercase Phi: Φ
- Lowercase Phi: φ
Chi (Χ / χ)
Chi (χῖ) is the 22nd letter of the Greek alphabet. Its Greek numerical value is 600.
Chi as in X is generally used as an abbreviation of the name Christ. For instance, Christmas is shortened to Xmas. In math and science, the term “chi-squared” has various uses.
The lowercase Chi may also represent mole fraction and electronegativity in chemistry.
- Uppercase Chi: Χ
- Lowercase Chi: χ
Psi (Ψ / ψ)
Psi (ψι) is the 23rd letter of the Greek alphabet. In the Greek numeral system, it represents the value of 700. Its origin is uncertain, but it is widely used as a symbol.
In physics, the letter Psi is commonly used to represent wave functions in quantum mechanics. The Psi symbol is also used to symbolize polygamma function.
- Uppercase Psi: Ψ
- Lowercase Psi: ψ
Omega (Ω / ω)
Omega (ωμέγα) is the 24th and the last letter in the Greek alphabet. It represents a value of 800 in the Greek numeral system. As the last letter of the Greek alphabet, it denotes the end, in contrast to Alpha.
There are various uses for both the uppercase and lowercase Omega symbols. For instance, the uppercase Omega symbol is used to denote ohm, the unit of electrical resistance.
The lowercase Omega sign, on the other hand, is popular for representing angular velocity or frequency.
- Uppercase Omega: Ω
- Lowercase Omega: ω
This wraps up our piece on the Greek symbols, their meanings and uses in modern times. If you liked it, you might want to check out our article on the Chi-rho symbol here, a symbol which is actually created by combining two Greek letters and has a very interesting background story.