We’ve adopted the fancy Greek-derived term sinécdoque/synecdoche for ‘a figure of speech in which a part of something stands for the whole thing.’ An example in which it’s the beginning of something that stands for the whole thing is the familiar noun alfabeto/alphabet, which was created from alfa/alpha and beta, the first two letters of the Greek alphabet. (Compare the English nursery rhyme that includes the line “Now I know my abc‘s,” where abc’s really means ‘the whole alphabet.’) The letter names alpha and beta, which Greek took from Phoenician, correspond to Hebrew álef/aleph and beth, which Spanish and English sometimes also use. The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, who knew Spanish and English, used the hybrid form “El Aleph” as the name of one of his most famous stories.
The original Semitic first letter of the alphabet seems to have meant ‘ox,’ and the original Semitic second letter meant ‘house.’ We find the second one in Belén/Bethlehem ‘house of bread’ and Bethel ‘house of the Lord,’ which as the lower-case bethel English uses for ‘a holy place, sanctuary’ and ‘a sailor’s chapel.’ Coming back to letters and alphabets, Spanish alefato is ‘the standard series of Hebrew consonants,’ and the one-letter-different alifato is ‘the standard series of Arabic consonants.’ (The consonants get singled out because the Semitic languages didn’t—and often still don’t—indicate the vowels in their words.)
The adjective alfabético/alphabetical means ‘arranged according to the standard order of the letters of the alphabet.’ With the negative Greek prefix an- we have analfabeto/analphabet ‘a person who can’t read,’ though the Spanish version is a lot more common than the English one. That greater frequency of usage may mean, alas, that there are more Spanish speakers who can’t read than there are English ones.
© 2011 Steven Schwartzman