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Alpha (uppercase Α, lowercase α; Ancient Greek: ἄλφα, álpha, modern pronunciation álfa) is the first letter of the Greek alphabet. In the system of Greek numerals, it has a value of 1.

It was derived from the Phoenician and Hebrew letter aleph Aleph - an ox or leader.[1]

Letters that arose from alpha include the Latin A and the Cyrillic letter А.

In English, the noun "alpha" is used as a synonym for "beginning", or "first" (in a series), reflecting its Greek roots.[2]




In Ancient Greek, alpha was pronounced [a] and could be either phonemically long ([aː]) or short ([a]). Where there is ambiguity, long and short alpha are sometimes written with a macron and breve today: Ᾱᾱ, Ᾰᾰ.

In Modern Greek, vowel length has been lost, and all instances of alpha simply represent IPA: [a].

In the polytonic orthography of Greek, alpha, like other vowel letters, can occur with several diacritic marks: any of three accent symbols (ά, ὰ, ᾶ), and either of two breathing marks (ἁ, ἀ), as well as combinations of these. It can also combine with the iota subscript ().

Greek grammar

In the AtticIonic dialect of Ancient Greek, long alpha [aː] fronted to [ɛː] (eta). In Ionic, the shift took place in all positions. In Attic, the shift did not take place after epsilon, iota, and rho (ε, ι, ρ; e, i, r). In Doric and Aeolic, long alpha is preserved in all positions.[3]

  • Doric, Aeolic, Attic χώρᾱ chṓrā — Ionic χώρη chṓrē, "country"
  • Doric, Aeolic φᾱ́μᾱ phā́mā — Attic, Ionic φήμη phḗmē, "report"

Privative a is the Ancient Greek prefix ἀ- or ἀν- a-, an-, added to words to negate them. It originates from the Proto-Indo-European *n̥- (syllabic nasal) and is cognate with English un-.

Copulative a is the Greek prefix ἁ- or ἀ- ha-, a-. It comes from Proto-Indo-European *sm̥.

Math and science

The letter alpha represents various concepts in physics and chemistry, including alpha radiation, angular acceleration, alpha particles, alpha carbon and strength of electromagnetic interaction (as Fine-structure constant). Alpha also stands for thermal expansion coefficient of a compound in physical chemistry. It is also commonly used in mathematics in algebraic solutions representing quantities such as angles. Furthermore, in mathematics, the letter alpha is used to denote the area underneath a normal curve in statistics to denote significance level[4] when proving null and alternative hypotheses. In zoology, it is used to name the dominant individual in a wolf or dog pack.

The proportionality operator "" (in Unicode: U+221D) is sometimes mistaken for alpha.

The uppercase letter alpha is not generally used as a symbol because it tends to be rendered identically to the uppercase Latin A.

International Phonetic Alphabet

In the International Phonetic Alphabet, the letter ɑ, which looks similar to the lower-case alpha, represents the open back unrounded vowel.

History and symbolism


Alpha was derived from aleph, which in Phoenician means "ox".[5]


Plutarch, in Moralia,[6] presents a discussion on why the letter alpha stands first in the alphabet. Ammonius asks Plutarch what he, being a Boeotian, has to say for Cadmus, the Phoenician who reputedly settled in Thebes and introduced the alphabet to Greece, placing alpha first because it is the Phoenician name for ox—which, unlike Hesiod,[7] the Phoenicians considered not the second or third, but the first of all necessities. "Nothing at all," Plutarch replied. He then added that he would rather be assisted by Lamprias, his own grandfather, than by Dionysus' grandfather, i.e. Cadmus. For Lamprias had said that the first articulate sound made is "alpha", because it is very plain and simple—the air coming off the mouth does not require any motion of the tongue—and therefore this is the first sound that children make.

According to Plutarch's natural order of attribution of the vowels to the planets, alpha was connected with the Moon.

Alpha and Omega

Memorial Stained Glass window, Royal Military College of Canada features Alpha and Omega

Alpha, both as a symbol and term, is used to refer to or describe a variety of things, including the first or most significant occurrence of something. The New Testament has God declaring himself to be the "Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last." (Revelation 22:13, KJV, and see also 1:8). Because of this symbolism, the characters and denote the left and right arguments in the APL programming language.


The term "alpha" has been used to denote position in social hierarchy, examples being "alpha males" or pack leaders.

Computer encodings

  • Greek alpha / Coptic alfa[8]
Character Α α
Unicode name Greek Capital Letter Alpha Greek Small Letter Alpha Coptic Capital Letter Alfa Coptic Small Letter Alfa
Encodings decimal hex decimal hex decimal hex decimal hex
Unicode 913 U+0391 945 U+03B1 11392 U+2C80 11393 U+2C81
UTF-8 206 145 CE 91 206 177 CE B1 226 178 128 E2 B2 80 226 178 129 E2 B2 81
Numeric character reference Α Α α α Ⲁ Ⲁ ⲁ ⲁ
Named character reference Α α
CP 437 224 E0
DOS Greek 128 80 152 98
DOS Greek-2 164 A4 214 D6
Windows 1253 193 C1 225 E1
TeX \alpha

For accented Greek characters, see Greek diacritics: Computer encoding.

  • Latin / IPA alpha
Character ɑ ɒ
Unicode name Latin Small Letter Alpha Latin Small Letter Turned Alpha Latin Small Letter Alpha
with Retroflex Hook
Modifier Letter
Small Alpha
Modifier Letter
Small Turned Alpha
Encodings decimal hex decimal hex decimal hex decimal hex decimal hex
Unicode 593 U+0251 594 U+0252 7568 U+1D90 7493 U+1D45 7579 U+1D9B
UTF-8 201 145 C9 91 201 146 C9 92 225 182 144 E1 B6 90 225 181 133 E1 B5 85 225 182 155 E1 B6 9B
Numeric character reference ɑ ɑ ɒ ɒ ᶐ ᶐ ᵅ ᵅ ᶛ ᶛ
  • Mathematical / Technical alpha
Character 𝚨 𝛂 𝛢 𝛼
Unicode name APL Functional Symbol Alpha APL Functional Symbol
Alpha Underbar
Mathematical Bold
Capital Alpha
Mathematical Bold
Small Alpha
Mathematical Italic
Capital Alpha
Mathematical Italic
Small Alpha
Encodings decimal hex decimal hex decimal hex decimal hex decimal hex decimal hex
Unicode 9082 U+237A 9078 U+2376 120488 U+1D6A8 120514 U+1D6C2 120546 U+1D6E2 120572 U+1D6FC
UTF-8 226 141 186 E2 8D BA 226 141 182 E2 8D B6 240 157 154 168 F0 9D 9A A8 240 157 155 130 F0 9D 9B 82 240 157 155 162 F0 9D 9B A2 240 157 155 188 F0 9D 9B BC
UTF-16 9082 237A 9078 2376 55349 57000 D835 DEA8 55349 57026 D835 DEC2 55349 57058 D835 DEE2 55349 57084 D835 DEFC
Numeric character reference ⍺ ⍺ ⍶ ⍶ 𝚨 𝚨 𝛂 𝛂 𝛢 𝛢 𝛼 𝛼
Character 𝜜 𝜶 𝝖 𝝰 𝞐 𝞪
Unicode name Mathematical Bold Italic
Capital Alpha
Mathematical Bold Italic
Small Alpha
Mathematical Sans-Serif
Bold Capital Alpha
Mathematical Sans-Serif
Bold Small Alpha
Mathematical Sans-Serif
Bold Italic Capital Alpha
Mathematical Sans-Serif
Bold Italic Small Alpha
Encodings decimal hex decimal hex decimal hex decimal hex decimal hex decimal hex
Unicode 120604 U+1D71C 120630 U+1D736 120662 U+1D756 120688 U+1D770 120720 U+1D790 120746 U+1D7AA
UTF-8 240 157 156 156 F0 9D 9C 9C 240 157 156 182 F0 9D 9C B6 240 157 157 150 F0 9D 9D 96 240 157 157 176 F0 9D 9D B0 240 157 158 144 F0 9D 9E 90 240 157 158 170 F0 9D 9E AA
UTF-16 55349 57116 D835 DF1C 55349 57142 D835 DF36 55349 57174 D835 DF56 55349 57200 D835 DF70 55349 57232 D835 DF90 55349 57258 D835 DFAA
Numeric character reference 𝜜 𝜜 𝜶 𝜶 𝝖 𝝖 𝝰 𝝰 𝞐 𝞐 𝞪 𝞪


  1. ^ Chambers concise dictionary p.30 Allied Publishers, 2004 ISBN 9798186062363 Retrieved 2017-02-06
  2. ^ Alpha - Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary
  3. ^ Herbert Weir Smyth. Greek grammar for colleges. paragraph 30 and note.
  4. ^ "Chapter 5: Analysing the Data Part II : Inferential Statistics". Research Methods and Statistics PESS202 Lecture and Commentary Notes. Archived from the original on 22 August 2011.
  5. ^ alpha on the Online Etymology Dictionary
  6. ^ Symposiacs, Book IX, questions II & III On-line text Archived 13 October 2008 at the Wayback Machine at Adelaide library
  7. ^ Hesiod, in Works and Days (see on Perseus Project), advises the early Greek farmers, "First of all, get a house, then a woman and third, an ox for the plough."
  8. ^ "Character Encodings". Retrieved 14 January 2013.