The Letter A
By Allan Haley
No one knows why ‘A’ is the first letter of our alphabet. Some think it’s because this letter represents one of the most common vowel sounds in ancient languages of the western hemisphere. Other sources argue against this theory because there were no vowel sounds in the Phoenician language. (The Phoenician alphabet is generally thought to be the basis of the one we use today.)
No one also knows why the ‘A’ looks the way it does, but we can construct a fairly logical chain of events.
Some say the Phoenicians chose the head of an ox to represent the ‘A’ sound (for the Phoenicians, this was actually a glottal stop). The ox was a common, important animal to the Phoenicians. It was their main power source for heavy work. Oxen plowed the fields, harvested crops, and hauled food to market. Some sources also claim that the ox was often the main course at meals. A symbol for the ox would have been an important communication tool for the Phoenicians. It somewhat naturally follows that an ox symbol would be the first letter of the alphabet.
The Phoenicians first drew the ox head ‘A’ as a ‘V’ with a crossbar to distinguish the horns from the face. They called this letter “alef,” the Phoenician word for ox. Through centuries of writing (most of it quickly, with little care for maintaining detail) the alef evolved into a form that looked very different from the original ox head symbol. In fact, by the time it reached the Greeks in about 400 BC, it looked more like our modern ‘k’ than an ‘A’.
The Greeks further changed the alef. First, they rotated it 90° so that it pointed up; then they made the crossbar a sloping stroke. The Greeks also changed the letter name from alef to alpha. Finally, they made the crossbar a horizontal stroke and the letter looked almost as it does today.
The Romans received the Greek alphabet by way of the Etruscan traders of what is now northern Italy. While the Romans kept the design, they again changed the name of the first letter–this time to “ah.” The sound “ay,” our name for the ‘A,’ was not common to the Latin language.
The Roman capital letters have endured as the standard of proportion and dignity for almost 2,000 years. They’re also the basis of many of the lowercase designs. ‘A’ is the first letter. There are 25 more stories.
Later Greek Alpha
The Letter B
By Allan Haley
Many people consider shelter to be the second most important ingredient for human survival. Coincidentally, the second letter in our alphabet evolved from the ancient Egyptian hieroglyph signifying shelter. Although the designs are somewhat different, there is a recognizable correlation between this Egyptian hieroglyph and the second letter of the Phoenician alphabet. The Phoenicians called this letter beth, their word for “house.” The name was eventually carried over into names and places in the Bible, including Bethel (house of God) and Bethlehem (house of bread).
Beth was one of 19 characters acquired from the Phoenician traders that became the basis of the Greek alphabet. In assimilating these letters, the Greeks made slight changes to some of the names. Beth became beta, providing us with the second part of the two-letter name that makes up the word alphabet.
While the name change was minor, the eventual Greek beta looks quite different from the Phoenician beth. Over many years the letter evolved from a pennant and right-angle shape into something that is quite similar to our present-day ‘B.’ First the character was inverted so that the triangle was at the base. Then, through continual use, and perhaps because symmetry was important to the Greeks, a second triangle was added and the two triangles ended up on the right side of the character.
The Greek beta further developed in the hands of the Romans. They changed its name to Bay, and formalized the curved strokes.
The Romans were some of the first calligraphers in the western world. Although they brought flowing lines and graceful curves to our alphabet, their art was born of technology. The early Greeks drew letters by scratching through a soft wax coating applied to a wooden board, which forced them to work primarily in short, straight lines. By the time the Romans inherited the precursor of our present alphabet, however, letters were drawn using flat pens and brushes on a smooth writing surface. The result was the gracefully-proportioned letters we are now familiar with.
From the square house, the B grew into one of the most beautiful letters of our alphabet.
Early Greek Beta
Late Greek Beta
By Allan Haley
For much of their history, the ‘C’ and ‘G’ evolved as the same letter. The Phoenicians named this letter gimel, meaning “camel,” and used it to indicate the sound roughly equivalent to our present-day ‘g.’ They drew the character with two quick diagonal strokes, creating something that looked like an upside-down ‘V’ that is short on one side.
When the Greeks began to use the Phoenician gimel in their writing, they took liberties with the original character design. First, the long arm was made vertical so that the letter resembled an upside-down capital ‘L’ with the arm extending to the left. Then they reversed the letter so that the short stroke was on the right side. This design reversal was not uncommon with the Greek versions of Phoenician letters. The early Greeks wrote boustrophedonically, meaning “turning like oxen in plowing.” (Alternate lines were written in opposite directions.) In this technique, non-symmetrical letters were reversed in alternate lines of writing. By the sixth century BC, the style had been dropped in favor of the current practice of writing and reading from left to right, but by that time many letters were permanently inverted from their Phoenician design.
As with other Greek letters, the Romans softened the sharp angle and the form began to look like our present ‘C.’
The Romans used this letter to indicate both the hard (kay) and soft (gay) sounds. In time, however, they developed a graphic differentiation for the two sounds. The soft sound remained the ‘C,’ while a barb was added to the bottom terminal to indicate the hard ‘G’ sound.
Thus, the gimel evolved into both the ‘C’ and ‘G.’ The ‘C’ is not only the third letter of our alphabet, but it is also the first letter to share the same design for both capital and lowercase.
Early Greek Letter
Later Greek Letter
The Letter D
By Allan Haley
Much of our alphabet is built on a representational strategy called “acrophony” (from the Greek acro, meaning “uppermost; head” and phony, “sound”). Acrophony means indicating a sound through the use of a picture or name of something that begins with the same sound. Children’s alphabet books do this all the time; they might use a picture of a dog, say, to represent the sound of the letter D.
When the Egyptians used the symbol for a hand (their word “deret”) to indicate the sound value of “D,” it served its purpose adequately. However, when the Phoenicians adopted much of the Egyptian hieratic system of writing (a kind of abridged form of hieroglyphics), they didn’t know which objects many of the signs actually depicted. For example, it has been speculated that the symbol that represented a hand to the Egyptians looked like a drawing of a tent door to the Phoenicians. As a result, the Phoenicians called the character “daleth” – their word for “door.” Different object, same D sound.
The Greeks continued the acrophonic tradition, but rather blindly. Even without knowing the literal meanings of the symbols, the Greeks were content to adopt the Phoenician names (or something close to them) to represent the Greek versions of the same letterforms. Thus, the Phoenician “aleph” became “alpha,” “beth” became “beta,” and “daleth” evolved into “delta.”
Over time, the Phoenicians’ haphazard rendering of a door developed into the orderly, often symmetrical triangular Greek delta. Later in its evolutionary process, the triangular “D” was tipped to balance on one of its points. Still later, a rounded version of the basic shape came into use.
It was this softened version of the “D” that was adopted by the Etruscans, from whom the Romans borrowed their alphabet. The Romans further refined the “D” into the balanced and deceptively simple letter we use today.
Early Greek Delta
Late Greek Delta
The Letter E
By Allan Haley
As any Scrabble player will tell you, ‘e’ has always been an important letter in our alphabet, used more often than any other. In the Internet age, however, ‘e’ has achieved near-ubiquitous popularity, since it can be tacked on at will on to almost any other word to imply the white heat of the technological revolution. Terms like e-business, e-zine, e-cash, e-text and e-book are now part of the daily language of many of us.
The forerunner of these compounds is the comparatively venerable e-mail, first recorded as a noun in 1982 and as a verb in 1987. At first, the e- was just a convenient abbreviation for electronic. E-mail gained wider currency from the early nineties onwards, but many new users of the term were uncertain whether the initial letter was an abbreviation or a prefix, and whether the word should be written with a hyphen or not. Hence the alternative forms E-mail, Email, and email.
Where It All Began
Flash back five millenia to Ancient Egypt. Several experts believe that the fifth letter of our alphabet – or, rather, some of the sounds it represents – were once indicated by the Egyptian hieroglyph for a house or courtyard. Two thousand years later the hieroglyph evolved into the Phoenician letter called “hé,” which represented, roughly, the sound of our ‘h.’
When the Greeks adopted the Phoenician writing system, they had difficulty using about half of the Phoenician letters; most of these troublesome characters were modified to bring them into sync with the Greek language. Some were altered only slightly, others drastically. A couple were dropped altogether.
The Phoenician ‘hé’ was one of the problem characters. The Greeks could not pronounce the first sound of the letter name. Being pragmatic people, and living in less complicated times, their solution was simply to drop the part of the name that was causing the difficulty. As a result, the Phoenician ‘hé’ became ‘e’ – and thus, our most useful vowel was born.
A Final Modification
Over time, the Greeks gradually simplified the design of the Phoenician character, and flopped it so that its arms were pointed to the right. The end result looked remarkably like the ‘E’ found in typefaces like Arial or ITC Avant Garde Gothic. The final version was given the name epsilon and represented a short ‘e’ sound (as in bed).
The Letter F
By Allan Haley
In its earliest years, the letter that evolved into our F was an Egyptian hieroglyph that literally was a picture of a snake. This was around 3,000 B.C. Through the process of simplification over many years, the F began to lose its snakelike character, and by the time it emerged as an Egyptian hieratic form it wasn’t much more than a vertical stroke capped by a small crossbar. With a slight stretch of the imagination, it could be said to look like a nail.
This may be why the Phoenicians called the letter “waw,” a word meaning nail or hook, when they adapted the symbol for their alphabet. In its job as a waw, the character represented a semi-consonant sound, roughly pronounced as the W in the word “know.” However, at various times the waw also represented the ‘v’ and sometimes even the ‘u’ sound.
When the Greeks assimilated the Phoenician alphabet, they handled the confusing waw with typically Greek logic: they split it into two characters. One represented the semi-consonant W and the other became the forerunner of our V. (The ‘w’ sound became the Greek digamma, or double gamma, and was constructed by placing one gamma on top of another.)
While the character was eventually dropped from the Greek alphabet, it was able to find work in the Etruscan language. Here it did yeoman’s service until the Romans adopted it as a symbol for the softened ‘v’ or double ‘v’ sound. Even today, the German language (an important source for English) uses the V as an F in words like “vater,” which means father and is pronounced “fahter.”
Finally, the F found a permanent home as the very geometric sixth letter of the Roman alphabet.
The Letter G
By Allan Haley
Generally speaking, there are no launch dates for the letters of our alphabet. For the most part they’ve come down to us through an evolutionary process, with shapes that developed slowly over a long period of time. The G, however, is an exception. In fact, our letter G made its official debut in 312 B.C.
Of course, the story begins a bit earlier than that. The Phoenicians, and the other Semitic peoples of Syria, used a simple graphic form that looked roughly like an upside-down V to represent the consonant ‘g’ sound (as in “gay”). They named the form gimel, which was the Phoenician word for camel. Some contend this was because the upside-down V looked like the hump of a camel.
The Greeks borrowed the basic Phoenician form and changed its name to gamma. They also made some dramatic changes to the letter’s appearance. At various times in ancient Greek history, the gamma looked like a one-sided arrow pointing up, an upside-down L, or a crescent moon. Throughout this time, however, the gamma always represented the same hard ‘g’ sound that it did for the Phoenicians.
The Greek form was adopted by the Etruscans and then by the Romans, where for many years it represented both the hard ‘k’ and ‘g’ sounds. This brings us to 312 B.C., when our modern G was formally introduced into the reformed Latin alphabet. The G was created to eliminate the confusion caused by one letter representing two sounds. The basic shape, which now looked like our C, was used to represent the palatalized sounds ‘s’ and ‘c,’ and a little bar was added to create the letter G, which denoted the guttural stop ‘g.’
The G took its position as the seventh letter of our alphabet, replacing the letter Z, which was considered superfluous for the writing of Latin. The ousted Z took its place at the end of the line.
The Letter H
By Allan Haley
Frankly, of all the letters, the H is the most boring. Stable and symmetrical, with both feet planted firmly on the ground, the H has been predictable in its design and use throughout much of its history. For example, it held the same position (the eighth letter) in the Semitic, Greek, Etruscan, and Latin alphabets as in our own. Only in the hands of type designers like Ed Benguiat (or in ten-dollar words like “heliotrope”) does the H begin to exude a touch of glamour.
Many historians believe that the H started out as the Egyptian hieroglyph for a sieve. It represented the same guttural, back-of-the-throat sound (think hissing cat) used by the Sumerians over a thousand years later, once again demonstrating the H’s yawn-provoking consistency. The Semites called the character kheth, which meant “fence.” Indeed, their representation of it could be imagined to resemble a fence, or at least part of one.
Somewhere around 900 B.C. the Greeks borrowed the kheth and dropped the top and bottom horizontal bars. Since they couldn’t pronounce the sound of the kheth, they called the letter eta. It was first used as a consonant. Later, however, the sign acquired the sound of a long ‘e’, to distinguish it from the short ‘e’ sound represented by the Greek letter epsilon.
The Etruscans and Romans adapted the Greek eta for their own alphabets. The Etruscans put the top and bottom crossbars back on the letter, while the Romans continued to leave them off. The monumental Roman H was the prototype of our current eighth letter.
The Letter I & J
By Allan Haley
The letters I and J follow each other in the alphabet and look a lot alike. So it comes as no surprise to discover that our ninth and tenth letters started out as the same character.
The Phoenician ancestor to our present I was a sign called “yodh,” meaning “hand.” The original Phoenician symbol evolved over time into a zigzag shape that was eventually adopted by the Greeks. The Greeks often simplified the symbols they borrowed, and the yodh was no exception. As used by the Greeks, the zigzag became a simple vertical line. The Greeks also changed the name of the letter to “iota.”
Iota was the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet and, as such, has come to mean “a very small amount.” The word “jot” also derives (via Latin) from the Greek iota, and usually refers to a small note or mark.
Like the G and F, the letter I took its time deciding which sound it represented. The Phoenicians used it as a semivowel, as the ‘y’ in toy. When the I was adopted by the Greeks around 900 B.C., they used the letter to represent the long ‘ee’ vowel sound. Then, in early Latin, the I represented both the vowel ‘i’ and the semivowel ‘y.’
Eventually, somebody must have grown tired of using one letter to represent two sounds, and so an attempt was made to differentiate them by lengthening the I slightly to represent the semivowel. In the 16th century, a lettering artist decided that merely lengthening the letter was too subtle a change, and added a hook to the bottom of the J.
Both the lowercase I and J have a dot, but there are two competing theories as to which got its dot first. One theory maintains that the J was first, with the dot added during the 13th century in an attempt to further distinguish J from I. The other theory posits that the I was dotted first (also during the 13th century), and that the dot’s purpose was to help distinguish the I from straight-sided characters like the M, N and U when it appeared near these letters in blocks of text copy.
The Letter K
By Allan Haley
Some letters are slaves to fashion. They’ll change their images for any number of reasons: to satisfy the whim of some snazzy new writing utensil, or even because they’ve taken up with a different language. The K, however, sticks to the tried and true. It’s remained virtually unchanged for the last three thousand years or so.
K was the 11th character of the ancient Semitic alphabets, a position it still retains in our current character set. In form, it has probably varied less than any other character. The Semitic sign “kaph,” the forerunner of our K, was a three-stroked character that represented the palm of an outstretched hand. While several versions of the kaph were used by the Semites, and more specifically the Phoenicians, all were composed of three strokes drawn in a similar fashion. First, the character was a simple drawing of a hand. Next, the character looked something like our Y with a short middle stroke between the two longer diagonals. Finally, it was simplified even more and turned on its axis so that its two diagonals pointed left (like a backwards version of our K). But even as the character was modified and turned in several directions throughout its evolution, the basic form remained nearly the same.
The Greeks took the simplified version of the kaph and introduced symmetry into the design. Eventually, they also turned the character around so that the diagonals faced right. The Greeks even kept the basic name of the letter, changing it only slightly, to “kappa.”
In the Greek language, two signs represented the ‘k’ sound: K and Q. The Etruscans, however, had three signs for the same sound: C, K, and Q. The early Romans adopted all three, but in time dropped the K, using it only for words acquired from the Greeks, or those of an official nature. The latter use was probably the reason the K made it to the Roman monumental inscriptions, which set the standard for our current design.
The Letter L
By Allan Haley
When the Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799, it sparked considerable interest among scholars and the general public. It was believed that this slab of black basalt, with its identical messages carved in Egyptian hieroglyphics, Egyptian demotic writing, and Greek script, could help unlock the mysteries of ancient Egypt.
The key resided in the oval-enclosed inscriptions on the stone, all referring to Egyptian rulers. The oval symbolized royalty, and the inscription within identified a particular ruler. The most frequently named ruler was Ptolemy; second in frequency was Kleopatra. The five letters that appear in both rulers’ names – P T O L E – were instrumental in deciphering the hieroglyphics.
So where did this useful L originate? The Egyptian equivalent of our L was first represented by the image of a lion. Over centuries, this image evolved into a much simpler hieratic character that became the basis of the letter we know today. When the Phoenicians developed their alphabet around 1000 B.C., the ‘el’ sound was depicted by several more-simplified versions of the hieratic symbol. Some were rounded and some were angular.
From this point in its history on, the L becomes a rather complicated character. It took on a variety of forms, sometimes simultaneously, in just about every alphabet in which it appeared. The Greeks alone had four versions. The Phoenicians called the letter lamedh, which meant “goad,” or a “lash.” Though a stretch of the imagination, a whip or lash can be seen in the basic shape of the Phoenician letter.
As they did with so many other letters, the Greeks borrowed the basic shape of the Phoenician letter, but made modifications to its design and name. They established the angular quality of the L.
The Romans adopted one of the Greek versions of the L, but even then the letter continued to evolve. The first Roman L looked more like an arrow pointing southwest, rather than the right angle of the current form. Over time, the letter evolved into the horizontal and vertical stroked character used on the monumental Trajan column – the same one we write today.
The Letter M
By Allan Haley
Historians tell us that our current M started out as the Egyptian hieroglyph for “owl.” Over thousands of years, this simple line drawing was further distilled into the hieratic symbol for the ‘em’ sound. Eventually, the great-grandparent of our M looked a bit like a handwritten ‘m’ balanced on the tip of one stroke.
The Phoenicians called the letter mem. It’s easy to see that the Phoenician mem is based on the Egyptian hieratic symbol, and that it’s the forerunner of the thirteenth letter of our alphabet. The mem looked much like our two-bumped lowercase ‘m’ with an added tail at the end.
The Greek mu evolved from the Phoenician mem. The Greeks further simplified the letter and, in the process, converted the soft, round shapes into angular strokes.
The Etruscans and then the Romans adopted the Greek form, but neither made substantial changes to the shape or proportions of the character. Sometime in the third or fourth century A.D. the rounded lowercase ‘m’ began to appear, but it was almost lost in later centuries. In medieval writing, it became common practice to place a stroke over the preceding letter instead of writing the ‘m’ (probably because ‘m’ is one of the more time-consuming letters to write).
The Romans also pressed the M and six other letters – I, X, V, L, C, and D – into double-duty as their numerals, and gave M the honor of standing in for the highest value, 1,000.
The Letter N
By Allan Haley
The early form of the N was always closely associated with water. When the sign was used by the Phoenicians more than three thousand years ago, it was called “nun” (pronounced noon), which meant fish. Before the Phoenicians, the Egyptian hieroglyph (or picture sign) for the ‘n’ sound was a wavy line representing water.
Around the 10th century B.C., the Greeks began adopting parts of the Phoenician alphabet as their own. In this way, they not only acquired the shape of the Phoenician nun, they also preserved its name – to a point. Although the Phoenician character’s name was meaningless to the Greeks, its initial sound became the sound that the sign represented. The Phoenician nun thus became the Greek “nu.”
The squiggly nu doubtlessly upset those organized, rational Greek minds, thus obliging them to redesign the character slightly to suit their sensibilities. First, they tried to give the angled strokes stability by making the last one a strong vertical support. But this made the letter (gasp!) asymmetrical! Obviously, this would not do, so the Greeks extended the other vertical stroke and made the two parallel.
The Greek N passed on to the Romans with virtually no change in the basic design. Over time, however, subtle changes were made to all the letters the Romans borrowed from the Greeks, and the N was no exception.
At first, the Romans, like the Greeks, incised their letters directly in stone, or inscribed them in soft clay. These early letters had no variation in stroke thickness and lacked most of the curved strokes we have come to associate with the Roman alphabet. In the first century A.D., however, stonecutters began to paint the letters on stone prior to cutting them with hammer and chisel. It was this pre-drawing process that gave our current alphabet its variance in stroke weight, rich flowing curves and, ultimately, serifs. During this evolutionary change, the N’s outside strokes became thinner and serifs were added.
By Allan Haley
Some believe that our present O evolved from a Phoenician symbol; others vote for an even more ancient Egyptian heiroglyph as the source. The most fanciful explanation, though, is offered by Rudyard Kipling in his Just So Stories. “How the Alphabet was Made” recounts how a Neolithic tribesman and his precocious daughter invent the alphabet by drawing pictures to represent sounds. After finishing the A and Y (inspired by the mouth and tail of a carp), the child, Taffy, asks her father to make another sound that she can translate into a picture.
‘Now make another noise, daddy.’
‘Oh!’ said her Daddy, very loud.
‘That’s quite easy,‘ said Taffy. ’You make your mouth all around like an egg or a stone. So an egg or a stone will do for that.’
‘You can’t always find eggs or stones. We’ll have to scratch a round something like one.’ And he drew this.
The father’s sketch of the first O would serve perfectly well today, since round remains the defining property of the letter. Actually, the O did start out as a drawing of something, but not an egg or a stone, or even a mouth. The true ancestor of our O was probably the symbol for an eye, complete with a center dot for the pupil. The symbol for eye, “ayin” (pronounced “eye-in”) appears among the Phoenician and other Semitic languages around 1000 B.C.
The Greeks adapted the ayin to their communication system and used it to represent the short vowel sound of ‘o.’ The Greeks also changed the name of the letter to Omicron. (The Omega is another Greek O, which they invented to represent the long ‘o’ sound.)
While the Phoenicians and the Greeks drew the letter as a true, nearly perfect circle, the Romans condensed the shape slightly to be more in keeping with their other monumental capitals.
The Letter P
By Allan Haley
New words are being invented all the time to keep up with changes in technology and daily life. This may have been one of the reasons the Phoenicians came up with the innovative notion of a phonetic alphabet: one in which the letters represented sounds. It was an elegant and practical idea, and it’s obviously had a huge impact on the nature of writing to this day.
A pictorial written language worked fine for the earlier Egyptian culture. For example, to the Ancient Egyptians, a picture of a man with a weapon clearly meant warrior. But in the more complicated society of the Phoenicians, the distinction between merchant and money-lender was not so easy to represent with an illustration. To address this problem, the Phoenicians worked out a modified picture-based alphabet. Now each picture did not represent the object itself, but rather, one of the sounds in the name of the object depicted.
The letter P is a perfect example. In Egyptian hieroglyphics, a drawing of a mouth would have meant just that: a mouth, or perhaps someone talking. In the Phoenician alphabet, the symbol of a mouth represented the sound of its Phoenician name, “pe.”
The Phoenician P actually had two forms. One had a rounded shape that looked a little like an upside-down J, and the other was a more angular form derived from a Sumerian symbol. The Greeks borrowed the sign from the Phoenicians, but here things get a little confusing. What looks like our P in the Greek language was actually their symbol for the 'r’ sound, while their 'p’ sound was represented by a more geometric, asymmetrical shape. This character was then further modified, and as the Greeks were compelled to do, made symmetrical. The final outcome was the sign they called Pi.
The Romans inherited their more rounded P, which looked much like the earlier Phoenician sign, through the Etruscans. In time the Romans turned the letter around and, in the process, developed the monumental P that is the prototype of all forms of our letter.
Phoenician Pe derived from Sumerian
The Letter Q
By Allan Haley
For as long as there have been Qs, designers have been having fun with the letter’s tail. This opportunity for typographic playfulness may even date back to the Phoenicians: the original ancestor of our Q was called “ooph,” the Phoenician word for monkey. The ooph represented an emphatic guttural sound not found in English, or in any Indo-European language.
Most historians believe that the ooph, which also went by the name “gogh,” originated in the Phoenician language, with no lineage to previous written forms. Historians also believe that the character’s shape depicted the back view of a person’s head, with the tail representing the neck or throat. It’s possible, but if you consider that the letter’s name meant monkey, then perhaps the round part of the symbol represents another kind of backside, and the tail of what became our Q may have started out as, well, a tail.
The Greeks adopted the ooph, but found it difficult to pronounce, and changed it slightly to “koppa.” The Greeks also modified the design by stopping the vertical stroke, or tail, at the outside of the circle. The koppa, however, represented virtually the same sound as “kappa,” another Greek letter. One of them had to go, and koppa was ultimately the loser, perhaps because it had begun to look much like another Greek letter, the P.
Unlike the Greeks, the Etruscans could live with the somewhat redundant nature of the koppa, and continued to use the letter. In fact, they had two other k-sound letters to contend with. The Romans elected to use all three signs when they adopted much of the Etruscan alphabet.
The first Roman Q had the Etruscan vertical tail, but over time it evolved into the graceful curved shape that cradles the U which usually follows it.
The Letter R
By Allan Haley
The letter R is a more exceptional character than it first appears. It’s not a P with a tail or a B with a broken bowl; when drawn correctly, the R is rich with subtle details and delicate proportions. It can be the most challenging letter for type designers to create, and the most – dare we say – rewarding.
There is an Egyptian hieroglyphic on the Rosetta Stone that represents the consonant sound of R. The symbol is called “ro” and was drawn in the shape of a mouth. In hieratic writing, the symbol was elongated into more of a capsule shape.
The Phoenician sign for the ‘r’ sound was called “resh,” their word for head. Resh bore no resemblance to the Egyptian ro; it was depicted in the Phoenician alphabet by what we assume to be a simple rendering of a left-facing human profile.
By 900 B.C. the Greeks had adapted the Phoenician letter and called it “rho.” The Greeks reversed the orientation of the head’s left-facing profile, which you might consider a step in the right direction toward creating the R. But they also converted the curve of the face into an angular form. The curve was eventually restored, and the letter ended up looking much like
The Romans borrowed the alphabet from the Greeks via the Etruscans, adding a short, obliqued appendage under the bowl. Seeing the advantage in having a differentiation between the R and P, the Romans further lengthened the stunted stroke into a graceful and delicately curved tail, which remains the trademark feature of our modern R.
The Letter S
By Allan Haley
Any way you look at it, the S is a complicated letter. Not only is it one of the more challenging characters to draw, but the story of its evolution has more twists, turns, and reverses than its shape.
The serpentine saga of our 19th letter gets its first false start with the early Egyptians and their hieroglyph for the ‘s’ sound, which was a drawing of a sword. Later, in the Egyptians’ hieratic writing, the sword was simplified until it looked more like a short piece of barbed wire than a weapon of war. When the Phoenicians built their alphabet on the Egyptian model, they rotated the piece of barbed wire 90 degrees and called it “sameth,” which meant a post. The Greeks adopted this letter but not as a true ‘s’ sound. Consider this a major reversal in the evolutionary road.
At the same time that the Egyptians were using the symbol of a sword to represent the ‘s’ sound, they also used a drawing that represented a field of land to represent the ‘sh’ sound. Like other hieroglyphs, the field symbol was simplified during the transition to hieratic writing. But unfortunately for the Egyptian scribes, the symbol’s usage became more complex. The reason? The Egyptians allowed as many as nine different versions of the symbol to exist at the same time. There were so many, in fact, that one wonders how they kept track.
The Phoenicians dropped most of these Egyptian ‘sh’ characters and settled on something that looked like our W to represent the ‘sh’ sound in their language (the symbol, aptly, represented teeth). The Phoenicians called their version of the letter “shin” or “sin.”
The Greeks borrowed the shin from the Phoenicians but drew it with three, four, and sometimes even five strokes. In some cases it hardly resembled the original Phoenician symbol, but in each the basic zigzag shape of the letter was maintained. In its final Greek form the character became the sigma, which resembles our present capital M lying on its side.
The Romans used a form of the sigma, which omitted the lower horizontal stroke of the character and made it look a little like a backward Z. Over time, the Romans changed the sharp angles of the sigma into softer, rounded forms and finalized the letter into its current graceful shape.
Does the story of the S end here, with the ancient Romans? Not quite; there are still a few twists and turns left. In English manuscripts of the 17th century, a lowercase version of the letter was modified to look remarkably like our lowercase f and stood for the long ‘s’ sound. Even today, the German language uses a letter which resembles a capital B (probably made up of a long and a short s), to represent the double lowercase s in words like “Strasse” and “weiss.”
The Letter T
By Allan Haley
Four thousand years ago, just as today, people who could not write used a simple cross to sign letters and formal documents. In fact, the first name for this ancient symbol actually meant “mark” or “sign.”
One might logically assume that this common signature stand-in was the origin of our present X. But that’s not the case. Instead, what looked like an X to ancient writers eventually gave birth to the Roman T.
How did that happen? Let’s go back to around 1000 B.C. During this time, the Phoenicians and other Semitic tribes used a variety of crossed forms to represent the letter they called “taw.” This letter, one of the first recorded, served two purposes: it represented the ‘t’ sound, and it provided a mark for signing documents that could be used by those who could not write their names.
When the Greeks adopted the taw for their alphabet ten centuries later, they altered it slightly until it looked pretty much like what our T looks like today. The Greeks called this letter “tau.” The tau was passed on, virtually unchanged, from the Greeks to the Etruscans, and finally to the Romans.
The Letter U, V, W and Y
By Allan Haley
The story of U is also the story of our V, W and Y. In fact, the origins of U even have something in common with the F, the sixth letter of our alphabet.
It all starts with an Egyptian hieroglyph that depicted a creature the Egyptians called Cerastes (the creature resembled a giant snake or dragon). This mark represented a consonant sound roughly equivalent to that of our F and was, in turn, the forerunner of the Phoenician “waw.” Certainly the most prolific of the Phoenician letters, the waw ultimately gave birth to our F, U, V, W, and Y.
Sometime between 900 B.C. and 800 B.C. the Greeks adopted the Phoenician waw. They used it as the basis for not one, but two letters in their alphabet: “upsilon,” signifying the vowel ‘u’ sound, and “digamma,” for the ‘f’ sound. Upsilon was also used by the Etruscans and then the Romans, both for the semiconsonantal ‘w’ sound and the vowel ‘u’, but the form of the letter looked more like a Y than either a U or a V.
In ancient Rome the sounds of U, V, and W, as we currently know them, were not systematically distinguished. Context usually determined the correct pronunciation. As a result, the Roman sharp-angled monumental capital V was pronounced both as a ‘w’ in words like VENI (pronounced “way-nee”) and as the vowel ‘u’ in words like IVLIUS (pronounced as “Julius”).
And what happened to the Y? After the Roman conquest of Greece in the first century B.C., the Romans began to use some Greek words. They added the Greek Y to the Latin alphabet to accommodate these new additions to their vocabulary. But the sound value given to Y by the Greeks was unknown in the Latin language; when the Romans used it in adopted Greek words it took on the same sound as the letter I.
In the Medieval period, two forms of the U (one with a rounded bottom and one that looked like our V) represented the ‘v’ sound. It wasn’t until relatively modern times that the angular V was exclusively retained to represent our ‘v’ sound, and the version with the rounded bottom was left with the single job of representing the vowel ‘u’.
As for the graphic form of W, it was created by the Anglo-Saxons, more or less during the 13th century. Sensibly, they tried to distinguish among the various sounds represented by the inherited letter when they wrote it down. So, though they used a V for both the ‘u’ and ‘v’ sounds, they wrote the V twice for the ‘w’ sound. Eventually the two Vs were joined to form a single character, called “wen.” This early ligature stuck and became part of the common alphabet rather than an accessory.
The French, rather than use a foreign letter in their alphabet, preferred to double one of their own characters. They chose the U and called the letter “double vay.” To the English it became a “double U.”
The Letter X
By Allan Haley
Is X really necessary? Fewer words in the English language start with X than with any other letter. Its sounds are easily rendered by the ‘z’ or ‘ks’ combination. The Phoenicians had no use for the ‘x’ sound, and many scholars contend that the Greeks did not use the letter to represent a phonetic sound. Even the Romans were not exactly sure where to use the letter, and stuck it at the end of their alphabet.
The Phoenician ancestor to our X was a letter called “samekh,” which meant fish. Although some historians argue that the character represented a post or support, with only a small stretch of the imagination the drawn character can be seen as the vertical skeleton of a fish.
When the Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet they left some of the Phoenician sibilant letters behind, taking only those that represented sounds the Greeks required. The ancestor to our X, which represented a sharp ‘s’ sound, was one such letter. The Phoenician samekh became the Greek "xi," which had different sound values in the Eastern and Western Greek alphabets.
Inconsistencies in the Greek pronunciation and usage of some letterforms were a direct result of geographical and political disunity. There were many Greek dialects and variations in letterform shapes and sound values, but the two main alphabet subgroups were the Ionic and Chalcidian. By 400 B.C., the Ionic alphabet, which had been officially sanctioned at Athens, became what we now know as the classical Greek alphabet. The Chalcidian, which was the alphabet of some Greek colonies that migrated to southern Italy, influenced several Italian writing styles, including Umbrian, Oscan and Etruscan.
The Romans appropriated the ‘x’ sound from the Chalcidian alphabet and represented it with the “chi” of the Ionic alphabet, which consisted of two diagonally crossed strokes. This letter became the prototype for both the capital and lowercase X we use today.
The Letter Z
By Allan Haley
The twenty-sixth letter of our alphabet was the seventh letter in the Semitic alphabet. They called the letter “za” (pronounced “zag”) and drew it as a stylized dagger. The Phoenicians used roughly the same graphic sign, which they called “zayin” and which also meant a dagger or weapon. A similar symbol turns up in various other cultures, all having the same meaning.
Around 1000 B.C. the Phoenician zayin became the Greek “zeta.” The Greek character looked more like a dagger than the zayin did, but it didn’t bear much resemblance to the Z we currently use. In fact, it looked a lot like our present capital I (especially as set in ITC Lubalin Graph, or another slab serif typeface).
The Romans adopted the zeta into their alphabet, but since the sound was not used in the Latin language the letter was eventually dropped, and the position of the seventh letter was given to the G. In fact, the Z might never have made it into our present-day alphabet, if not for a few stray Greek words that were incorporated into the Roman language after the Romans conquered the Greeks. In order to write these words a Z was required, and so, several centuries after it was first banished from the Roman alphabet, the Z was allowed to return. However, because the letter was not a part of the traditional Roman language, the Z was relegated to the last spot in the alphabetical hierarchy.
The Romans used the capital I form of the letter in their monumental inscriptions, but there are none to be found in the famous Trajan Column (since there are no Greek words inscribed there). It was only when the letter was written by scribes and calligraphers that the top and bottom strokes were offset from each other and connected by what became a diagonal, rather than vertical, stroke. The reason for this design change? Probably because it was quicker and easier to write. The lowercase ‘z’ is simply a smaller version of the capital, no doubt for the same reason.
By Allan Haley
Type designers have to walk a narrow path in their work. The defined shapes of the letters of our alphabet provide little room for self-expression, which limits how creative a designer can get when it comes to drawing individual letterforms. There are exceptions: the ampersand, for instance, has a well-deserved reputation as being one of our most fanciful characters, as well as one of the most fun to draw!
Like many letters in our current alphabet, the ampersand probably began as a convenience. The Latin word et (meaning “and”) was first written as two distinct letters, but over time the ‘e’ and ‘t’ were combined into a ligature of sorts. Once the ampersand was accepted as a single character, artistry took over and a more flowing design evolved. Credit for the invention of the ampersand is usually given to Marcus Tiro, who included it in a shorthand writing system he devised in 63 B.C.
By the time Charlemagne’s scribes developed the Carolingian minuscule in about 775 A.D., the “et” ligature had become a standard part of their repertoire. It remained so all the way until the invention of printing in the 15th century, when the ampersand was adopted, with enthusiasm, by the first typographers. For example, Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, printed by Aldus Manutius in 1499, used twenty-five ampersands on a single page. Why such liberal use of the ampersand? Early printers wanted to keep their work in the tradition of hand-illuminated manuscripts. And, like us, they considered the ampersand a particularly beautiful character and enjoyed using it for its aesthetic merit.
The word “ampersand” is an alteration of the phrase “et, per se and” (that is: “et by itself [means] and”), which became corrupted to “and, per se and”, and finally, ampersand.
By Allan Haley
Students of alphabet history know that our present letterforms evolved from the Roman monumental letters. Why is it, then, that our numerals are Arabic in origin?
The Romans did have a numbering system, of course. It was based on capital letters: I represented one, V represented five, X represented ten and so on. This approach may have worked perfectly well in monumental inscriptions, but it didn’t work so well anyplace else. As a practical matter, Roman numerals were difficult to work with and prone to computational errors.
In the meantime, the Arabs had proven themselves to be excellent mathematicians, using numeric symbols borrowed from an ancient Hindu system of counting. However, all of the various numbering systems used by early cultures were hampered by the absence of the concept of zero. It wasn’t until the sixth century A.D. that zero as a numerical value was developed, in India. Through their trade with India, the Arabs adopted the concept of zero and ultimately were responsible for bringing this useful notion to Europe.
For the most part, the symbols the Arabs used looked much like the numerals we use today, but it took many years for the Western world to incorporate these characters into printing and writing. As late as the twelfth century, most European numerals (except for the 1, 8 and 9) were different from the forms we use today. Commercial activity eventually caused the conversion from Roman numbering to the Arabic numerals preferred by merchants. As international trade expanded, so did the use of Arabic numbers.
When Gutenberg invented the art of typography he included a set of numbers in his font. In spite of this precedent, for almost a hundred years afterwards numbers were generally treated as “pi” characters – generic symbols that did not correspond to any particular typeface design. Claude Garamond, the celebrated 16th century type designer, is generally given credit for creating the first font of type that included numbers specifically designed to reflect the subtleties of its letterforms.
By Allan Haley
Timothy Dexter was a prominent citizen of eighteenth century New England, a businessman and sometime writer with a reputation as an eccentric. Dexter’s best-known book, A Pickle for the Knowing Ones, was remarkable only for its complete lack of punctuation. To its second edition Dexter added a page filled with periods, commas, semicolons and other punctuation marks, so that readers could, according to Dexter, “pepper and salt it as they please.”
While to us it may seem that Dexter’s disregard for proper punctuation was one of his idiosyncrasies, this casual approach is absolutely in keeping with the heritage of our written language. The earliest hieroglyphic and alphabetic inscriptions had no punctuation symbols at all: no commas to indicate pauses, no periods between sentences. In fact, there weren’t even spaces between words. Nor did the early Greek and Roman writers use any form of punctuation.
It wasn’t till later, in formal inscriptions, that word divisions were indicated by a dot centered between words. Still later, spaces were used in place of the dots, and by the seventh century the convention was quite common. In some early medieval manuscripts, two vertically aligned dots represented a full stop at the end of a sentence. Eventually one of the dots was dropped, and the remaining dot served as a period, colon or comma, depending on whether it was aligned with the top, middle, or base of the lowercase letters.
When the English scholar Alcuin established a consistent writing style for all scribes in the Holy Roman Empire in the ninth century A.D., one significant result was the Caroline minuscules – the forerunners of our own lowercase letters. Alcuin also attempted to standardize the marks and use of punctuation. Aldus Manutius, the Renaissance typographer and printer, helped establish Alcuin’s reforms through consistent usage. Manutius used a period to indicate a full stop at the end of a sentence and a diagonal slash to represent a pause.
The basic form of the question mark was developed much later, in sixteenth-century England. Most typographic historians contend that the design for the question mark was derived from an abbreviation of the Latin word quaestio, which simply means “what.” At first this symbol consisted of a capital Q atop a lowercase ‘o’. Over time this early logotype was simplified to the mark we use today.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, quotation marks, the apostrophe, the dash, and the exclamation point were added to the basic set of punctuation marks in consistent use. The initial configuration of the exclamation point, which is descended
from a logotype for the Latin word io (“joy”), was a capital I set over a lowercase ’o’. As with the question mark, the design of the exclamation point was gradually streamlined to its present form.
Our repertoire of punctuation continues to expand. As recently as the 1960s, a new mark called the interrobang was proposed. A ligature of the exclamation point and question mark, the interrobang would serve as a way to punctuate sentences like, “You did what?!”
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