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Alpha (letter)

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Alpha (letter)

For other uses, see Alpha (disambiguation).

Alpha (uppercase Α, lowercase α; А.

In English, the noun "alpha" is used as a synonym for "beginning", or "first" (in a series), reflecting its Greek roots.[1]

Uses

Greek

In Ancient Greek, alpha was pronounced ] when short and ] when long. Where there is ambiguity, long and short alpha are sometimes written with a macron and breve today: Ᾱᾱ, Ᾰᾰ.

In Modern Greek, vowel length has been lost, and all instances of alpha represent the short [a].

In the polytonic orthography of Greek, alpha, like other vowel letters, can occur with several diacritic marks: any of three accent symbols (ά, ὰ, ᾶ), and either of two breathing marks (ἁ, ἀ), as well as combinations of these. It can also combine with the iota subscript ().

Greek grammar

In the Attic-Ionic dialect of Ancient Greek, long alpha ] fronted to ] (eta). In Ionic, the shift took place in all positions. In Attic, the shift did not take place after epsilon, iota, and rho (ε, ι, ρ; e, i, r). In Doric and Aeolic, long alpha is preserved in all positions.[2]

  • Doric, Aeolic, Attic χώρᾱ chṓrā — Ionic χώρη chṓrē, "country"
  • Doric, Aeolic φᾱ́μᾱ phā́mā — Attic, Ionic φήμη phḗmē, "report"

Privative a is the Ancient Greek prefix ἀ- or ἀν- a-, an-, added to words to negate them. It originates from the Proto-Indo-European *n̥- (syllabic nasal) and is cognate with English un-.

Copulative a is the Greek prefix ἁ- or ἀ- ha-, a-. It comes from Proto-Indo-European *sm̥.

Math and science

The letter alpha represents various concepts in physics and chemistry, including alpha radiation, angular acceleration, alpha particles, alpha carbon and strength of electromagnetic interaction (as Fine-structure constant). Alpha also stands for thermal expansion coefficient of a compound in physical chemistry. It is also commonly used in mathematics in algebraic solutions representing quantities such as angles. Furthermore, in mathematics, the letter alpha is used to denote the area underneath a normal curve in statistics to denote significance level[3] when proving null and alternative hypotheses. In zoology, it is used to name the dominant individual in a wolf or dog pack.

The proportionality operator "" (in Unicode: U+221D) is sometimes mistaken for alpha.

The uppercase letter alpha is not generally used as a symbol because it tends to be rendered identically to the uppercase Latin A.

International Phonetic Alphabet

In the International Phonetic Alphabet, a letter based on the lower case of alpha represents the open back unrounded vowel.

History and symbolism

Etymology

Alpha was derived from aleph, which in Phoenician means "ox".[4]

Plutarch

Plutarch, in Moralia,[5] presents a discussion on why the letter alpha stands first in the alphabet. Ammonius asks Plutarch what he, being a Boeotian, has to say for Cadmus, the Phoenician who reputedly settled in Thebes and introduced the alphabet to Greece, placing alpha first because it is the Phoenician name for ox — which, unlike Hesiod,[6] the Phoenicians considered not the second or third, but the first of all necessities. "Nothing at all," Plutarch replied. He then added that he would rather be assisted by Lamprias, his own grandfather, than by Dionysus' grandfather, i.e. Cadmus. For Lamprias had said that the first articulate sound made is "alpha", because it is very plain and simple — the air coming off the mouth does not require any motion of the tongue — and therefore this is the first sound that children make.

According to Plutarch's natural order of attribution of the vowels to the planets, alpha was connected with the Moon.

Alpha and Omega

Alpha, both as a symbol and term, is used to refer to or describe a variety of things, including the first or most significant occurrence of something. The New Testament has God declaring himself to be the "Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last." (Revelation 22:13, KJV, and see also 1:8).

Language

The term "alpha" has been used to denote position in social hierarchy, an example being "alpha male".

Computer encodings

  • Greek alpha / Coptic alfa [7]


For accented Greek characters, see Greek diacritics: Computer encoding.

  • Latin / IPA alpha

  • Mathematical / Technical alpha

References

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