"End-Form Sigma"

From: Edward Hobbs (EHOBBS@wellesley.edu)
Date: Sun Aug 17 1997 - 12:29:08 EDT

David Smethurst asks:

Dear Gentlemen and Ladies
I have a question that I havent been able to answer myself so I have joined
this list to see if any here may be able to answer.
My question is: what is the numerical value and by what authority and
reference is it varified for the letter; End Form Sigma.
All languages that I have seen tend to have the end froms at the end of the
alphabet giving the value after all the 'normal' alphabet has been valued,
so that they tend to be in the highest numerical values, such as in Hebrew,
the last five letters are the end forms to make up the counting to one
I thank you for any information that is given
God bless you all

Reply by Edward Hobbs:

The use of alphabetic characters for numbers varied a lot in the ancient
world; the Greek had several different systems at various early times. But
the system which prevailed eventually is the one you can find in most
classical grammars (such as the best two, Goodwin-Gulick and Smyth-Messing)
and in some NT textbooks. A very nice piece on this was posted on 11
August by Edward Pothier. It had one very minor slightly misleading
sentence, which I wrote privately to him about (while asking permission
to print it out for my students!), but was an excellent, clear, easy-to-
understand introduction to the topic.

Since he has already posted it to the List, I will take the liberty of re-
posting it, together with my off-line response to him.

To deal with David's precise question: The "authority" for the system was
its being used by large numbers of cities and people (Athens actually held
out for a long time!). As for end-form sigma--- it was never used for any
number. The system which came into being was when only capitals were used,
and included three now-defunct letters (27 symbols were needed, and
classical-on Greek had only 24 letters). See Pothier's excellent
description of this process of development. The old sixth letter of the
alphabet was FAY (pron. "fow," like "cow") but often called "digamma" since
its form was like our F; so this was used for 6. Later, as cursive writing
came into use, they used cursive forms of the letters needed--except there
is no cursive form for digamma, the letter no longer existing. So they
borrowed the combination form called "stigma," used for sigma-tau (st). It
looks much like a final sigma, except the top horizontal line is much

Edward Hobbs

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