11 December 2006

The Lunacy of the Lunate Sigma: A Rant

I was very excited last week to get the OCT edition of Hesiod — a requirement for a class I might actually get to take. My shocked, initial joy at finding a legible text in a new OCT, and decked out with a beefy apparatus, was dampened when I noticed a serious pet-peeve of mine — the silly lunate sigma.

For those who don't know Greek, the lowercase letter sigma (sounds "s") comes in two forms, one used at the end of a word, one used everywehere else, like σῖτος sitos "(food made from) grain" (cf. parasite). The lunate sigma, an ancient form of the letter, looks like a lowercase "c", ϲῖτοϲ.

For reasons I cannot fathom, it has become fashionable to use the lunate sigma in modern editions of Greek works. What is so bizarre about this that the lunate form is a zombie. In any modern text of, say, Homer, the font used is based on the habits of the Late Byzantine scholars from whom Western Europe reacquainteded itself with ancient Greek learning. The lunate sigma is alien to those hands. If we really must enforce sigma to a single form, there's much better precedent for using the non-final shape everywhere (see Thompson's A Handbook of Greek and Latin Palaeography for the evidence).

Another problem with the lunate sigma is that, as an intruder, it rarely plays well with other letters in a face. I've seen one book (I think the current "Teach Yourself" for classical Greek) that appears to have had the lunate form crammed in without any kerning information. It looks just terrible. OCT has done a better job with the lowercase form, but the uppercase form looks like it's delirious from a wasting disease. The best lunate sigma I've ever seen seems to have been designed with the rest of the font, and appears in H. van Thiel's Scholia D on Homer.

Now, I would be happy to see lunate sigmas in an apparatus. In fact, I would applaud it. But I cannot figure out why it's ending up in the main body of texts. It isn't more historically accurate, or is so only in a wildly eccentric way. It often looks awful. Greek offers a vast array of difficulties for beginners, so simplifying sigma isn't going to help anything at all. Finally, it is an active impediment to reading for people experienced with Greek. Unless they've never seen a word before, people don't actually phonate words when reading an alphabet. After years of experience "the" goes straight into your brain as "the." The shape of the word counts, so ruining my familiar εἰς and σῖτος to favor εἰϲ and ϲῖτοϲ is just annoying.

And don't get me started on adscript iota.

4 comments:

Nicholas said...

I like that you have an entire category for rants.

Well, if you end up reading Demeter for that class as well, and you decide to have a look at Richardson's edition, be prepared for more lunates. I had it checked out of my library for the better part a year, so it doesn't phase me anymore. I haven't seen the lunates in an OCT, but the ones in R.'s book were nice enough, although I never got used to the uppercase ones, probably because I didn't seem them much.

And now I'm going to get you started on the iota adscript: I'm nearing the end of Prometheus Bound using the edition of Griffith from the Cambridge series, which uses the iota adscript, and I'm still not used to it at all. I think it makes more sense than the lunate sigma at least, but, even so, I think it's an even bigger pain is the neck. The iota subscript is like a dative slapping me in the face, and now I find myself hesitating over these unfamiliar vowel combinations, and thinking maybe I should study my paradigms more thoroughly, and then it strikes me. You'd think after about a thousand lines I'd have it down, but just as I'm getting somewhat used to it, I'm going to be done with it (or so I hope).

I want to learn German to access some of the classical scholarship, but I'm afraid that the Fraktur face is going to give me bad dreams.

I guess I should just be grateful for any typefaces, and that I can read Homer without unrolling anything, or trying to read miniscule manuscripts written in cursive by candlelight with bad pens.

Wm Annis said...

I like that you have an entire category for rants.

Well, you know. Truth in advertising.

I think it makes more sense than the lunate sigma at least, but, even so, I think it's an even bigger pain is the neck. The iota subscript is like a dative slapping me in the face,

Exactly! It's not clear to me that making the subscript adscript provides greater understanding, while I do know it adds ambiguity, especially when long alpha is involved.

but I'm afraid that the Fraktur face is going to give me bad dreams.

The print is fine. If you learn to read Fraktur handwriting you will become a friend to all geneologists.

L. Amadeus Ranierius said...

Μάλιστά γε.

L. Amadeus Ranierius said...

Though, it's worth noting that my typical handwriting in Latin or Greek script is uncial in form, and thus my Greek uncials have lunate sigmas exclusively -- but, I also don't write smooth breathing marks, and, as they are uncials, no lowercase, so ...

Still, I agree with you on the importance of word shape to word recognition.