May 8 2019

Abécédaire: Karen Van Dyck, "A for alphabet" Karen Van Dyck

1. A is for alphabet.

2. Alphabets are a way of ordering things.

3. People are very attached to their alphabets.

4. They often think theirs are the very first. The Greeks think Greek came first, but really the Greek alphabet derives from the Phoenician. Americans assume the Latin alphabet, now the alphabet of global English, is the first.

5. A lot of energy goes into asserting the power and priority of one alphabet over another. The Greek alphabet has a certain cachet because of classical learning and math: people know about Alpha and Pi. Greek became the sign of all that went wrong when migrants starting filling the cities of New York and Chicago in the late 19thand early 20th century. The point was to get rid of the Greeks and their incomprehensible alphabet – “It’s all Greek to me!” Only the Greek-looking font on the ubiquitous New York diner coffee cup is left.

6. Transliteration, replacing one alphabet with another, is an important way of enforcing the supremacy of one’s own order of things. US newscasters seemed baffled to see athletes from Zimbabwe parading near the beginning of the Athens 2004 Olympic opening ceremonies, also from the US and Switzerland. The Greeks of course used their alphabet. The Greek words for US and Switzerland begin with Epsilon which comes next to Zeeta all at the start of the Greek alphabet – Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, Zeeta…

7. Transliteration can also be a political act and a way of destabilizing power. As the Greek-American poet Olga Broumas writes:

“Beginning with O, the O-

mega, horseshoe, the cave of sound.

What tiny fragments

survive, mangled into our language.

I am a woman committed to

a politics

of transliteration.”

Each year, the Fellows and staff of the Institute for Ideas and Imagination participate in making our "abécédaire." Each one chooses a letter, and a word that starts with that letter and explains why this word is important, and what it means to him or her.

United States

Karen Van Dyck


Karen Van Dyck is the Kimon A. Doukas Professor of Modern Greek Literature at Columbia University. She is the founder and former director of Hellenic Studies (1988-2016) and has also been an active member of the Institute for Research on Women, Sexuality and Gender, the Institute of Comparative Literature and Society, the European Institute and the Istanbul Global Center. Her...