'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

'Alcyon' - Greek Or Latin?

Long ago. I chose Latin as my optional language for two years at junior college (the Pre Degree course as it used to be called in those days). There were many who asked me very curiously in those early days: "Have you learnt all the Latin alphabets?" My answer usually was a rather smug "There is nothing to learn there! Latin alphabets are the same as in English; in fact there are less letters - no 'k', no 'y' and no 'w'"

A couple of years ago, in one of the earliest posts in this blog, I wrote: "iste bunu seviyorum" cannot be Latin because 'y' as in seviyorum is not there in Latin"

Very recently, I met a gentleman who is among the founder members of a company called 'Alcyon Engineering'. I asked him about the rather unusual name of the company. He said: "'Kingfisher' is our favorite beer. And 'Alcyon' is a Latin word which means 'kingfisher'"

I asked further: "Are you sure it is Latin? It feels more Greek to me"

The gentleman smiled and said: "Does it make a difference?"

I persisted: "Actually, I used to know some Latin - and I have no Greek. The letter 'y' is not there in Latin. So, I would say it has to be Greek"

He said he would read up on the word again.

Thanks to that meeting, and the 'net', I have just found that my Latin alphabet knowledge had been rather limited all along.

Merriam Webster says: Halcyon means either (1) kingfisher or (2) a bird identified with the kingfisher and held to nest at sea about the time of winter solstice and to calm the waves during incubation. This second meaning led to the phrase 'halcyon days' to mean a calm, peaceful, happy, prosperous... era. The word 'halcyon' itself is Latin and derives from Greek 'alkyon' or 'halkyon' (note: alkyon must be spelt: 'alpha- lambda- kappa-ypsilon-omicron-nu' in Greek)

(Wikipedia adds: In Greek mythology, Alcyone (pronounced 'alkioni') was a demi-goddess who turned into the halcyon bird)

Although my guess that 'halcyon' originated in Greek was correct, I was rather surprised to see 'alcyon' being its Latin derivative - Why the 'y'??

I read the Wikipedia article on the letter 'Y'. It says: 'y' was borrowed into Latin from Greek. Greek appears to have developed some redundancy - two 'i''s the iota and the upsilon, which is also called ypsilon (pronounced ipsilon). In Latin, 'y', which is ypsilon came to be known as the 'Greek i' and even today, the Latin-based languages such as Italian, Spanish, French and so on refer to 'y' as the 'Greek i'. In Latin languages, 'y' usually used only when transliterating a Greek word with an ypsilon in it; in all native words with 'i' sound, 'i' is used, not 'y'.

So 'y' is there in Latin after all although pronounced identically to 'i'; and it has been there almost from the very beginning.

'k' also has a similar story - it is the Greek letter 'kappa' borrowed into Latin. Let me quote a bit from Wikipedia:

"Latin abandoned the use of K almost completely, preferring C. When Greek words were taken into Latin, the Kappa was converted to C. Some words from other alphabets were also transliterated into C. Therefore, the Romance Languages have K only in words from still other language groups. The Celtic Languages also chose C over K, and this influence carried over into Old English. Today, English is the only Germanic Language that productively uses hard C in addition to K.

Some English linguists prefer to reverse the Latin transliteration process for proper names in Greek, spelling Ceres as "Keres", for example. And the writing down of languages that don't have their own alphabet with the Latin one has resulted in a standardization of the letter K for this sound, as in Kwakiutl."


Note 1: From the above, we can infer that the Greek 'alkyon' could simply have gone to Latin unchanged - or as 'alcion'. But, 'alcyon', as a transliteration, seems a case of doing things by halves - 'k' is converted to to 'c' but 'y' is untouched. And this transliteration has corrupted the pronunciation as well - 'halcyon' is pronounced 'hal-sE-&n' with 'k' going to an 's' (note: the 'h' in the beginning of 'halcyon' might well be the quite universal phenomenon of 'ha' sound replacing an 'a' at the beginning of a word and vice versa).

Note 2: Now I remember mentioning to 'Gyani', a National Geographc article about the ancient Greek city of Mycenae. He had remarked, in his own sagely way: "Ah, Nandu! It is not 'My-seen-ay'. It is 'Mikenai'!"

Note 3: This upsilon-ypsilon (y-u) thing seems weirder than I thought. For example, Wales is called 'Cymru' in Welsh language. But the pronunciation is nothing like 'sim-roo'. It is more like 'koom-ree'! Come to think of it 'oo' as in 'book' and 'ee' as in 'deep' are not that far apart in pronunciation. Tamil language has plenty of examples. 'veedu' (home) is often pronounced almost 'voodu' in collocation at least in Madaras Bashai. Even 'vidu' ('leave') goes to 'vudu'....


  • At 12:55 AM, Blogger Two Minds said…

    'w' is not in Latin letters for sure? Are all the other letters there, for sure?

    If only 'w' is not there, it will be interesting to know, why 'w' is not there.

    Can you plese R & B (log) on this? Thanks.

  • At 1:26 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…


    i had deliberately avoided writing about 'w'; and you spotted it :)

    wikipedia has an article on 'w'. i would recommend reading that. indeed every letter has a rich history - and this post has barely begun to scratch the surface.

  • At 12:00 AM, Blogger bonkers said…

    Thanks for your comments on Ypsilon--I converse on a BB with a psuedo called Ypsilon--and you give me the meaning!---I'll go back and impress him now with my new found knowlege. (I found this site simply by putting the word Ypsilon into the search finder.)

  • At 7:54 PM, Blogger shrik said…

    Wow, that's a lot of research! ...but it still doesn't answer the question - Does it make a difference? :P

  • At 2:14 AM, Blogger R.Nandakumar said…

    thanks steve for visiting. you are welcome to quote from the post but any errors are due to wikipedia. i disown all responsibility :)

    and shrik, yours was one comment i really waited for. much pleased to have you here! and no, i dont really know a quick binary answer to that question of yours; i could try another post though!

  • At 5:55 AM, Blogger M. said…

    y in Latin is not pronounced as 'i', but as the sound in the French word 'feu'. Older borrowings into latin use i, newer ones keep the Greek y.

    If you are still interested in developing your Latin, then look at

    Schola has grown to almost 900 members, all of whom are learning to communicate in Latin - using Latin as a living language. Latin may be technically extinct, but as a revived language it has been going strong for hundreds of years.
    Some are very good, others are still just finding their feel. Most are helped along by the huge amount of comprehensible input in audio available on Latinum


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