Greek Paleography From Antiquity to the Renaissance [by T. Janz]

The Greek Minuscule Alphabet

Mellon 03J Minuscule alphabet.jpg

(Parts of letters which are shown as intermittent strokes are optional extensions used to avoid ambiguity; for the meaning of the red and blue dots, see the Early Minuscule page.)

Alpha: It is ironic that the ductus of the minuscule alpha, in Byzantine manuscripts, is rather like that of our cursive a, whereas the fish-shaped α which we are used to thinking of as the Greek alpha is in fact an affectation of certain elegant sixteenth-century scribes which owes its subsequent fortune to the fact that it happened to be in fashion when the first Greek typographical fonts were being crafted.

Beta: This is probably the most confusing letter in the minuscule alphabet, because it is very different from the β we are used to writing, and because it is easily confused with ypsilon, with which it differs in having a tail at the baseline on the right (which is usually attached to the following letter), and with kappa.

Epsilon: Though its shape is derived from a cursive letter written without lifting the pen, in bookhands this letter is usually written in at least two phases, typically either as a sigma to which an ascender is subsequently added, or as a slanted "L" sitting on the headline to which a loop is subsequently added below.

Zeta: Often an angular zig-zag rather than the rounded shape shown here.

Eta: When written carelessly, easily confused with kappa. The ascender later tended to be shortened, producing the form of η we are familiar with today.

Iota: The optional extension below the baseline is used systematically by many scribes, to avoid any ambiguity.

Kappa: When written carelessly, easily confused with eta; if the ascender is too short, it may be confused with beta.

Nu: Later, cursive varieties of this letter, written in a down-and-up pattern without lifting the pen, later gave birth to the "V"-shaped nu we use today.

Xi: Like zeta, often angular rather than rounded, in which case it often resembles the "crotchet rest" of our musical notation.

Sigma: Since there is no word division in old Greek minuscule, there can of course be no "final sigma" in this script, which knows only the shape shown above for this letter. The lunate (majuscule) sigma, of which our "final sigma" is a variation, was gradually (re)introduced starting at the end of the ninth century.