History of the Roman Alphabet and the Alphabet Symbols
“The alphabet is a system and series of symbols representing, collectively, the elements of written language that should be studied not only to gain the thoughts it reveals, but also to know it for itself alone as a sublime achievement of the human mind, and to savour the peculiar pleasure that is to be had from appreciating its beauty as a vehicle of thought.”
This alphabet, the one we’re using to write and read these very words, is known either as the Latin alphabet or the Roman alphabet, and is the most widely used alphabetic writing system in the world. Its origins can be traced back to the first primitive impressions painted on the walls of caves. The development of mankind’s earliest symbols into letters to represent sounds was a journey both gradual and haphazard, but eventually the phonetic alphabet was born, establishing a culture of the imagination that allowed western thought and culture to blossom.
An alphabet of abstract symbols like ‘A,B,C…’ is an entirely different concept from a pictographic writing system such as the Egyptian hieroglyphs or the earliest Chinese characters. It was from such pictographic systems, however, that all phonetic systems evolved. Those early pictorial representations of things and ideas morphed, over time, into simpler symbols (letters) that were, in themselves, meaningless, yet, when sequenced together, acquired meaning as words. These letters, in their service to literacy, became virtually transparent symbols. No one person could have consciously planned the miracle of our current ‘invisible’ alphabet, but its history is certainly traceable.
At least as far back as 1700 BC (perhaps even earlier), a Semitic people working in Egypt brought the concept of pictographic writing to their homeland in the Near East. Unlike the thousands of hieroglyphic symbols used by the Egyptians, the Semitic tribe required only 22 symbols to represent their consonants. The nearby Canaanites, Hebrews, and Phoenicians all adapted this consonants-only alphabet, but it was the Phoenicians whose redesign of the script over centuries proved most user-friendly. As successful traders, they traveled widely from their homeland (now Lebanon), spreading their alphabet along with their system of weights and measures throughout the lands of the Mediterranean and Asia Minor.
Around 1000 BC, the Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet, added vowels, and created a truly phonetic alphabet. They named this writing system, ‘the alphabet’, derived from its first two letters, ‘alpha’ and ‘beta’. Greek myth celebrates the Phoenician whom they honour as the ‘father of the alphabet’ for introducing the Phoenician letters to the Greeks. His name was Cadmus, and in those early days the Greeks called their new writing system is called Cadmeian.
The Romans embraced a subsequent version of the Greek alphabet (the Etruscan alphabet), then altered it to suit their special linguistic needs. The earliest evidence we have of the Roman alphabet comes from an inscription on a brooch from the 6th century BC. Roman imperialism was responsible for spreading their alphabet throughout western Europe, and when the empire collapsed in the 5th century AD, the looting illiterate barbarians didn’t realize that their most precious spoil of war was the alphabet they would use to write their own language. Today, the Roman alphabet is the writing system used by thousands of languages around the world.
Some of our ‘invisible’ letters are occasionally called upon to stand forth and be noticed. The ‘A’ indicates a student has done well in her studies. An ‘F’, not so good. An e-mail is probably landing in your in-box, right now. A road sign emblazoned with ‘H’ announces a hospital up ahead. An ‘L’ warns of a novice behind the wheel of the car. And, of course, ‘X’ marks the spot. A look back at the derivation of our Roman letters reveals many similarities with the letters of the Phoenician alphabet of 3000 years ago.
The Letter A : In the consonants-only alphabets (abjads) that emerged in the Near East as far back as 4000 years ago, the letter ‘A’ stood for ‘Aleph’, signifying the ox, the most important animal in many early cultures. The ‘A’ sound was a glottal stop – a non-sound – which the Greeks felt they didn’t need, and so used the vacancy to introduce their first vowel, ‘alpha’, ‘A’. The Romans just called it ‘A’.
The Letter B: In Phoenician script, the letter was ‘Beth’, meaning house (or place, temple, woman, daughter). It was possibly derived from an Egyptian hieroglyph meant to depict a reed hut, and standing for an ‘h’ sound. To the Greeks it became ‘beta’. To the Romans, ‘B’.
The Letter C: The Phoenicians called it ‘Gimel’, the camel, the carrier, without which one couldn’t communicate between one oasis and another. To the Greeks it became ‘gamma’. The Etruscans had no familiarity with the ‘g’ sound, so they sounded it as ‘k’. It was the Romans who made use of it as ‘C’. By adding a serious serif, they had another letter, the ‘G’.
The Letter D: Originally ‘Daleth’, the door. The two triangles sure look like a fish. The Greeks called it ‘delta’, and of course it’s now our ‘D’.
The Letter E: Before the Greeks called the letter, ‘E’, ‘epsilon’, the Phoenicians called it ‘He’. It was an ‘E’, all right, although appeared ‘backwards’. In its earliest incarnation, the ‘E’ looked like a man with his arms raised, praying or…? In the English language, it’s the most commonly used letter.
The Letter F: The ‘Waw’ was a hook, which the Etruscans used as their ‘v’ before handing it off to the Romans as their ‘F’.
The Letter H: ‘Heth’ to the Phoenicians. Traced back to the Egyptian hieroglyphic system, it looks like a fence. Technically, it’s a voiceless glottal fricative, but don’t let that ruin your day. The Greeks knew it as ‘eta’, and the Romans turned it into our ‘H’.
The Letters I and J: ‘The hand’ was originally the whole arm, simplified by the Greeks to become their ‘iota’ before the Romans made good use of it, not only as their ‘I’, but as their Roman numeral ‘uno’. With a slight ‘bending of the arm’, they also made a ‘J’ out of it. It wasn’t until almost the 20th century that the letter ‘J’ makes it into English dictionaries.
The Letter K: It represented the palm of the hand in its earliest mode, then appeared as a backwards ‘K’ in Phoenician hands. The Greeks turned it the other direction to serve as their ‘kappa’. For the Romans, the ‘K’. But with three letters representing the ‘k’ sound – C, K, Q – the Romans favoured the ‘C’, saving the ‘K’ for foreign words.
The Letter L: From the Phoenician ‘lamedh’ to the Greek ‘lambda’, it started life as a sheperd’s staff, or more probably an ox goad. It turned (upside down) by the time it became the Roman ‘L’.
The Letter M: A zig-zag wave symbol in its earliest form, it was called ‘mem’ in Phoenician, then ‘mu’ when it reached Greece. The Romans preserved it as the letter ‘M’.
The Letter N: If ‘fish’ doesn’t come to mind, then think ‘eel’ or ‘snake’. An angular version of the snaking line becomes ‘nu’ for the Greeks, and for the Roman, ‘N’.
The Letter O: Originally oval, ‘ayin’ was the eye. In the Phoenician alphabet, it was a rounder shape, and voiced as one of those deep throaty sounds. The Greeks used it as their small ‘o’, employing the omega as the big ‘O’. The Romans didn’t mess with the perfection of ‘O’.
The Letter P: ‘Pe’, the Phoenician symbol for ‘mouth’, didn’t much resemble one, so the Greeks put it to work as their symbol for ‘pi’, which of course, became the Roman letter ‘P’. (By the way, many English words that begin with ‘ph’ have their origins in the Greek letter ‘phi’.)
The Letter Q: Looking like a lollypop on a stick, ‘qoph’, meaning ‘monkey’, may have actually been the symbol for a knot. In either case, it called up a guttural k-like sound. The Greeks adopted this ‘Q’, but their preference lay with the ‘kappa’. Western Greeks hung on to it long enough for the Romans to pick it up and use it only before a ‘u’. The English language still follows that convention.
The Letter R: From an early symbol for ‘the head’, the Greeks made a ‘P’ out of it. The Romans, already having one, added an extra leg to invent the letter ‘R’.
The Letter S: What started life as a symbol for ‘tooth’, became for the Phoenicians something that resembled our ‘w’, but which the Greeks applied to their notion of ‘sigma’. It’s not far from the angular ‘sigma’ to the rounded Roman ‘S’. In English, the ‘S’ begins more words than any other letter in the alphabet.
The Letter T: Originally an ‘x’ mark, the Greeks put it to use as their mark for ‘tau’, and the Romans for the letter ‘T’.
The Letters U, V and Y: The ‘Waw’ sign, which gave us (in typically circuitous fashion) our ‘F’, was also the inspiration behind the Greek ‘upsilon’, which became the Roman letter ‘Y’, and subsequently our fifth vowel, as well as a consonant. From the ‘upsilon’ also sprung the Roman ‘V’, used as both consonant and the ‘u’ vowel-sound. Later, it would appear as the written letter ‘U’, the two being interchangeable until relatively recent times.
The Letter W: Our ‘W’ wasn’t devised until the 7th century A.D, when, in the aftermath of the Anglo Saxon invasion of Britain, the runic alphabet was the operative writing system. Monks labouring in their scriptoria tried to incorporate the Roman alphabet. One vestige is two ‘u’s (or ‘v’s) combined as one letter, the ‘W’.
The Letter X: This obvious sign started out looking more like a telephone pole with three horizontals. It was called ‘samekh’ and stood for ‘fish’. The Greeks inherited it and used it for their ‘xei’, which sounded like ‘ks’. They also created a variation of it for their letter ‘chi’, which is the ‘X’ version adopted by the Romans. The least-used letter in the English language, ‘X’ is nevertheless a powerful symbol much used in advertising. We use it mark a ballot, as well as the mark or ‘signature’ of illiterate people around the world.
The Letter Z: ‘Zayin’ is believed to have represented a weapon of some kind, perhaps even the Zorro-esque sword. It became the Greek ‘zeta’. The Romans didn’t use this ‘Z’ until they embraced it as a means of including some Greek words into their lexicon, in the 1st century AD. Where else to put it but on the end of their alphabet? ‘Zed’ or ‘Zee’ – the difference is as different as Greece and Rome.
And what about the ‘lower case’ alphabet? Not all alphabets – Hebrew, for example – have such a feature. An alphabet that has both upper and lower case letters — the Roman/Latin/English alphabet, for example – is known as a ‘bicameral’ alphabet.
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