Is there a reason why only some of the capital and non-capital letters of the Greek alphabet are different?

1 Answer 1


It depends how hard they are to write with a pen!

The "capital" letters are based on ancient inscriptional forms, the way they were carved into monuments. This is why they're made of straight lines and simple curves. Nice and easy to carve.

The "lowercase" letters, on the other hand, are based on manuscript forms, which evolved from the inscriptional ones when they were written with ink on papyrus and parchment over the generations. That's why the lowercase ones are mostly designed to be written with a single penstroke each.

How did they end up combined? Mostly through the influence of the Latin manuscript tradition, where the first letter of a section would be written in a special way. With the invention of the printing press, this was eventually codified into the modern rules for "capital" and "lowercase" letters, now well-established for both Latin and Greek (and, eventually, Cyrillic too).

So, the differences between capital and lowercase letters comes down to how much adaptation was needed to write them with a pen. Iota and omicron are easy to draw with a single stroke, and don't need much modification at all. Xi, on the other hand, needs its "tiers" connected if you want to write it without lifting your pen from the paper, and alpha becomes a lot curvier when you write it in a single movement.

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    it's also worth noting that what counts as "the same" is not completely clear cut. Does a difference in size count (e.g. C & c)? British English joined-up handwriting typically teaches not to join capital letters up (unlike US cursive), does that count as a difference (this would also distinguish C & c)? Does raising or lowering count as difference (e.g. Ψ & ψ)? Does drawing it a little more curvily count (e.g. Ρ & ρ)? Etc etc etc
    – Tristan
    Aug 23, 2023 at 14:49
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    I might add the capitals are not easier to carve on stone, only; they are easier to scratch on waxed tablets, on shards of pottery (the "ballots" of their world), sheets of lead, etc... anything but papyrus or vellum. Think runes. Aug 23, 2023 at 16:03
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    @Draconis Many thanks for your informative answer. Has research been done on the sequence of adaptation, for example the progression from Σ to σ as I would imagine it never happened overnight?
    – Farcher
    Aug 24, 2023 at 8:27
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    @Farcher in that particular case the missing link is the lunate sigma Ϲϲ, which appeared in both carved inscriptions and written papyri throughout the Hellenistic & Byzantine periods. The modern lower case sigma evolved from this by closing the loop (or adding a serif down at the end of a word), whilst the modern upper case sigma is an archaism
    – Tristan
    Aug 24, 2023 at 9:34

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