Final Sigma

From: Edgar M. Krentz (
Date: Wed Sep 04 1996 - 13:06:31 EDT

I read the submissions on the use of sigma in Greek manuscripts and printed
texts with interest. A couple of comments might still be useful.

1. In THE PALAEOGRAPHY OF GREEK PAPYRI, now alamost one hundred years old,
Frederic G. Kenyon examined both non-literary and literary papyri from the
Ptolemaic through the Roman and Byzantine periods. The sigma of the
Ptolemaic and Roman periods, even in early cursive scripts, is the lunar
sigma, but written in a variety of ways (pp. 44-45). But when alpha and
sigma are written at the end of a word in the first century BC, at times
the sigma becomes a downward curving stroke, open to the left, attached to
the alpha (see p.45). This suggests that the final sigma may be a
development from this convention. In the literary papyri of the Ptolemaic
and Roman periods (about 650 years in extent) the lunar sigma is used
universally, with only slight variations of height and roundness. See the
table of the literary alphabets following p. 128.

(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1912) gives the letter forms of Greek cursive
alphabets from the third century BC to the eighth century A.D. in a four
page table after p. 190. He suggests on page 189 that "The round minuscule
[sigma] has its prototype in a cursive form in which the curve [of the
lunar sigma] is continued almost to a complete circle, and then finished in
a horizontal link-stroke; this can be traced back to the first century B.
C. and reappears at intervals, becoming common in the eighth century, when
it also assumes the exact minuscule shape."

MITTELALTERLICHEN LITERATUR (Zuerich: Atlantis Verlag, 1961) has an essay
by Herbert Hunger on "Antikes und mittelalterliches Buch- und Schriftwesen"
(pp. 25-148). In his survey of Greek palaeography he discusses minuscule
script on pp. 90-107. In the eleventh century "Perlschrift" there is no
trace of the final sigma. The same is true of the single leaf I own of the
thirteenth century Lectionary written by Constantine the Reader. He nowhere
notes the use of a final sigma in minuscule manuscripts.

4. In vol. I.1 of Raphael Kuehner's AUSFUEHRLICHE GRAMMATIK DER
GRIECHISCHEN SPRACHE. 3rd ed. rev. F. Blass (Hannover: Hahnsche
Buchhandlung 1890) p. 41 the following note appears: "In der Kursivschrift
nimmt sigma am Ende des Wortes die Gestalt [s] and, als: SEISMOS. Nach dem
Vorgange von Hl Stephanos gebraucht man oft das s auch in der Mitte
zusammengesetzter Woerter, als PROSFERO ...."

5. In sum, the history of the usage of final sigma is obscure.It appears
that it came into "normative" Greek orthography sometime in the period of
early Greek printing. The 1488 editio princeps of Homer published in
Florence does not yet have a final sigma. The Aldine Aristophanes of 1498,
which set the standard for Greek typfaces for close to three centuries,
does not appear to use a final sigma, while Aldine Thesaurus Conrucopiae of
1496 does! The first complete Greek Bible, an Aldine published in 1518
does. By the time of Stephanus' 1578 complete Plato the final sigmas seems
to be well established in printed texts.

Some enterprising graduate student with access to a major collection of
incunabula might write a history of this development. At the moment all one
reads in the manuals of palaeography suggests that it is rarely, if ever,
used in minuscule manuscripts. It would be interesting to know which
printer set the standard for subsequent printing.

Or ought we go back to using lunar sigma, as some Teubner texts did a
generation ago?

I should add that the suggestions of Carl Conrad and Dr. Rainer Thiele (2
September) sound plausible, but need verification from manuscripts, ideally
dated ones. Perhaps the origin is to be sought in cursive used in commerce
or in some forms of Greek tachugraphy.

Edgar Krentz, New Testament
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
1100 East 55th Street
TEL.: 312-256-0752 FAX: 312-256-0782

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