originally published April 18, 2014
I love playing around with the format of this little experiment and trying to cram as much (seemingly) meaningless trivia into a tiny thousand-word cubicle. To that end I’m going to offer a specific number of trivia slices to spread across your plate of knowledge today, awaiting the fork of your understanding to spear them into your hungry maw of learning so that you can digest them, extracting their knowledge-nutrients and converting the rest into cerebral poo. Also I’ll throw in that over-wrung metaphor for free. Such are the bargains here at Marty’s House o’ Stuff.
Twenty-six snippets for twenty-six letters. It’s fun getting a little meta, writing about writing – or in this case, writing about the microorganisms that band together and excrete the bulk of my daily output for your enjoyment. Every picture tells a story, and every story is made up of letters and every letter is a picture with its own story… it’s the circle of linguistic life.
For your consideration, I present the Latin alphabet in all its glory.
The letter A (under its old-school name, aleph) was the first letter of the Phoenician alphabet. It was derived from the ox-head pictogram from the Bronze Age proto-Sinaitic script, which in turn came from the Egyptian hieroglyph. The horns pivoted around and by the time the Romans adopted their own written language from the Greek alphabet and a mix of other influences in the 7th century BC, the horns were pointed downward.
The glyph that may have spawned the letter B could represent the floor plan of a cottage. Clearly the Egyptians weren’t big on fancy layouts back then. The Greeks gave the B its bulbous curves when they crafted their symbol for ‘beta’.
The letter C is derived from the same letter as G. The Semites called it ‘gimel’, which is still its name in Hebrew. The hieroglyph that inspired it may have represented a staff sling – a stick with a short sling at the end of it, like a lacrosse stick with the net part falling off.
The Semitic letter that gave us D might have evolved from the symbol for ‘door’ or ‘fish’. Some languages pronounce this letter like we pronounce a ‘T’. Handy tip if you’re learning Navajo, Estonian or Icelandic.
The figure on the left represents someone praying, calling out to someone, or perhaps raising their hands in the air like they just don’t care because when you hear the call you’ve got to get it under way, word up. Anyway, much like how A tilted around, the Greeks decided that E’s forefather, epsilon, should point its fingers to the right.
F was brought into the Greek alphabet as a vowel: upsilon. Upsilon is the grand-daddy to the letters U, V, W and Y. It wasn’t until the Romans declared ‘V’ to be their upsilon that F was granted the sound we associate with it today. The Greeks and Etruscans didn’t even use the sound in their languages, which might be why the capital of Greece is not called ‘Affens’.
As I pointed out, C used to represent the ‘K’ and ‘G’ sounds before open vowels showed up. Spurius Carvilius Ruga, the first Roman to create a school with fees (and my massive student loan debt thanks him for that), introduced the G to distinguish between the voiced and voiceless sounds that C had been burdened with.
The fence hieroglyph was whittled down to the familiar letter H. This forlorn little letter was dropped by nearly all the Romance Languages. Some picked it up again, but others didn’t, which is why French-Canadians play “le ‘ockey” and not “hockey”. The name of the letter is up for debate too – I call it “aitch”, but other varieties of English (in Malaysia, Singapore and yes… Newfoundland) call it “haitch”.
It took until the 16th century for J and I to really separate and become their own separate creatures. In the Turkish alphabet, an I with a dot (called a ‘tittle’ by those of us who enjoy saying that word) has a different sound than one without. You’ve got to watch for specks on your paper I guess, otherwise you’ll sound like a schmuck.
J used to show up as the final I in a Roman numeral if more than one I was present. So xxiij would have been the proper way to write 23. The original /j/ sound (as it’s written in proper phonetics) is actually more of a ‘y’ sound, as we use it in “Hallelujah” or “Fjord”. We use the letter J the way the French do.
In the earliest Latin writings, C, K and Q all made the same sounds (either ‘K’ or ‘G’). Most romance languages dropped the K, which was deemed an unnecessary letter. There were plenty of words already swimming through those languages with the letter K though, so it never went away.
The letter L may have derived from the symbol for a cattle prod or a shepherd’s staff. The British pound sign, which is based on the capital L, stands for ‘libra’, the basic unit of weight in the Roman Empire. This is also why ten pounds is abbreviated to 10 lbs and not 10 pds. Sometimes we just stick with the old ways.
The squiggle that tells the origin story of M likely represented water. The Semitic equivalent is known as ‘mem’, which was the Phoenician word for water. Is it a coincidence that our word for water starts with a letter that looks like an upside-down M? Absolutely.
The Egyptian hieroglyph for J was meant to look like a snake because their word for snake started with that sound. The Semitic languages (Hebrew, Phoenician, Aramaic and Arabic) used a word which began with an N sound, so rather than create something new they just borrowed the J squiggle. It was already there; why not?
O hasn’t changed at all. How do you improve on a circle? The Phoenicians called it ‘eyn’, meaning ‘eye’, but for the most part languages around the world – even the ones that didn’t derive from the European / Middle Eastern languages – use ‘O’ to make the same sounds we use it for. Probably because of the mouth’s shape while pronouncing it.
Arab languages never bothered with the phoneme for the letter P. Way back in the dusty days of old, the /p/ phoneme evolved into the Arabic /f/. Even words they have since borrowed into the language have been given a /b/ sound. So I guess they call it… Balestine?
The letter Q, which took a roundabout route to our language via the hieroglyph for a cord of wool and the Greek letter Qoppa, is the only letter not found in any U.S. state name. In the Zulu language, it is pronounced as a postalveolar click, which is heaps of fun.
The Semitic letter R may have derived from the Egyptian hieroglyph for ‘head’ – if that drawing above is accurate, then from a head with a distinct soul patch. R is the biggest pain in the ass when you’re learning linguistics because there are more than a half-dozen ways to pronounce it: as a fricative, a trill, a flap, and so on.
Up until about the fourteenth century, the small form of S looked like a lower-case ‘f’ without the foot at the bottom or the line through the middle. Once the printing press became a thing, the lower-case form of S was required to avoid confusion with ‘f’. Think about it – the word ‘sinfulness’ would looke like: ſinfulneſſ.
T hasn’t changed much. The Phoenician letter ‘taw’ looked more like a plus sign, but apart from a shift of the horizontal bar, a T has always been a T. It’s also our most popular consonant – something to keep in mind if you’re ever on Wheel of Fortune.
Using a V in place of a U is a great way to make your new condo complex appear old-timey and classical. The two letters used to be interchangeable – in the Middle Ages there was a period where V would be used at the beginning of the word and U if it showed up in the middle. It took until the mid-16th century before V was established as the consonant and U as the vowel.
V is the sixth-least common letter in English, and it doesn’t show up at all in Polish – they use W instead. In Spanish, a V is pronounced like a B, which I count as more evidence that when I eventually travel the world I’m going to sound like an idiot almost everywhere I go.
W used to look like a double-U, which really shouldn’t surprise anyone. In Danish, Norwegian, French and Swedish they actually call the letter double-V. In Finnish, W is not a separate letter and is pronounced /v/. In Russia, the letter V is pronounced like a W, so long as we base our research solely on the utterances of Pavel Chekov from Star Trek.
The letter X is an enigma. It serves very little purpose, as the sounds it makes can be easily formed by using another letter or pair of letters (zylophone, eks-laks, etc). But we love it. It marks the spot on our treasure maps, shows us where we screwed up on our history quiz and stands in as the mystery element in algebraic equations.
When printing first became a thing in Great Britain, the letter Y was used in place of the letter thorn, pictured above. Thorn was the letter that created the ‘th’ sound, which is why we see Y in place of ‘th’ quite often in Old English, as in “Ye Olde Shoppe”. Also, the British fucking love their silent e’s.
The letter Z was tacked onto the end of the Latin alphabet in the 1st century BC as a way to pronounce Greek words with the letter zeta. It is the rarest letter in our language, though you’ll find it more in American writing (with words that end in ‘ize’ instead of ‘ise’) than anywhere else. Also, you Americans are the only ones calling it ‘zee’. The rest of us like our ‘zed’.
There you are – 26 new factoids that will change absolutely nothing about your life. But those little creatures that have evolved over thousands of years from cave scratches to the names of potential sex partners, hastily scrawled in Sharpie in a bathroom stall – those things mean everything.