The Origin of the English Alphabet (and all its 26 letters)

The word “alphabet” originates from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta which were derived from the original Semitic names for the symbols: Aleph (“ox”) and beth (“house”).

On the other side, the alphabetic system of letters which is in worldwide use today has a more complex story. The English alphabet, in a form that we know today, is the result of the clash between the Latin alphabet and the Futhark, an older alphabet, also called a runic alphabet.

The alphabetic roots

The origin of the early alphabetic system, which started developing in ancient Egypt, was a Proto-Sinaitic (Proto-Canaanite) form of writing. Some 700 years later, the Phoenicians took the Egyptian graphemes and shaped them into a 22-letter alphabet. There were only consonants, with no vowels at all.

When the Greeks added vowels to the Phoenician alphabet in 750 BC, it was considered as the successful and the final form. But, this was only the beginning of remodeling and reshaping of the true alphabet. However, together with some Etruscan characters, it set foundations to the Latin alphabet, and it was spread by the Romans on their conquests.

One of the provinces ruled by the Romans was the Britain. At that time, the island was under the reign of the Anglo-Saxons whose language was Old English and the alphabet was runic or Futhark. Over time, these two alphabets influenced each other and produced the English alphabet as it is today.

Modern English

By the 15 century, the English language was standardized and the first dictionary in English,The Table Alphabeticall, was published by Robert Cawdrey in 1604. Having been used interchangeably, the letters V and U, which were written together, now were separated, whereas V became a consonant and U a vowel.

Now, let’s pay attention to each alphabetic symbol!

Letter A

In its original form, the letter A was upside down and reminiscent of the head of an animal with horns or antlers. In ancient Semitic, the letter translates to ‘ox.’

Letter B

The original form of the letter B comes from the Egyptian hieroglyphics where it looked like a house with a door, a roof and a room. That shape represented ‘shelter’.

Letter C

It dates from the Phoenician time, in a shape of a boomerang or hunter’s stick. It was of the opposite direction and much sharper than today.

Letter D

This letter was known as ‘Dalet’ among the Phoenicians. It looked like a rough triangle that faced left. The meaning of the letter is ‘door.’ It became ‘delta’ in the Greek alphabet and later changed into a semicircle shape by the Romans.

Letter E

It looked like a stick figure of a human with two arms and one leg and uttered as an ‘H’ in the Semitic language. Then, The Geeks changed the pronunciation into an ‘ee’ sound.

Letter F

This letter looked more like a ‘Y’ in ancient times, with the pronunciation similar to ‘waw.’ The ancient Greeks renamed it ‘digamma’ and made it resemble the present-day F.

Letter G

The letter ‘G’ came from the Greek ‘zeta’. It looked like an ‘I’, but sounded as ‘zzz’. The Romans changed its form, adding it top and lower arms and a ‘g’ sound.

Letter H

The letter ‘H’ is of an Egyptian origin. In old Egypt, it was known as a symbol for fence.

Letter I

This character was named ‘yod’ and its meaning was hand and arm. The Greeks called it ‘iota’ and applied it vertically. Nowdays, it is written as a straight, vertical line.

Letter J

The letter ‘I’ used to represent the ‘J’ sound in ancient times. The Spanish language should be given credits for the development of this letter which officially appeared in print in the 17th century.

Letter K

The name of this letter was‘kaph’ in the Semitic language. The meaning is ‘palm of the hand.’ When the Greeks adopted it, the letter became ‘kappa’ and flipped to the right.

Letter L

Modern letter ‘L’ used to be upside down. It was pronounced ‘El,’ which meant ‘God.’ The Phoenicians gave it a reversed look and straightened the hook a bit. Now this form was called ‘lamed’ (pronounced lah-med). It meant ‘a cattle prod’. In Greek alphabet, this letter became ‘lambda’. Later, in the hands of the Romans, it acquired the final look as it has today.

Letter M

Originally, the letter was shaped into the wavy vertical lines with five peaks representing water in the Egyptian tradition. After the Semites adoption of this symbol, it was reduced to three waves, and later downsized by the Phoenicians to two. The modern M was created in 800 BC.

Letter N

Believe it or not, the letter ‘N’ was similar to a small ripple atop a larger ripple which symbolized cobra or snake. The ancient Semites gave it the ‘n’ sound and it stood for ‘fish.’ In old Greece, only one ripple appeared, and the Greeks called the ripple ‘nu.’

Letter O

The letter ‘O’ was called ‘eye’ in Egyptian and ‘ayin’ in Semites. The Phoenicians reshaped the hieroglyphics-an eye without the pupil.

Letter P

Ancient Semitic letter ‘P’ looked like an inverted ‘V’ and it meant ‘mouth’. The further reform of the letter lead to converting its top into a diagonal hook shape; flipping it to the right, and closing the loop to form the ‘P.’

Letter Q

The letter ‘Q’ sounded like ‘qoph’ and meant ‘a ball of wool or monkey’. At first, it was written as a circle traversed by a vertical line, until the transformation into this form, committed by the Romans.

Letter R

The letter ‘R’ was initially turned left in the language of the Semites. The pronunciation of the symbol was ‘resh’, meaning ‘head.’ The Romans wrote it on the right, as it remained until today.

Letter S

The letter ‘S’ initially symbolized the bow of an archer. Its appearance modernized with the Phoenicians’ touch, who gave it the name ‘shin’. The translation of the character was ‘tooth. The Greeks named its vertical position ‘sigma’ while the Romans standardized it.

Letter T

The Phoenicians called the letter T ‘taw’ (mark) which sounded like ‘tee’ when pronounced. The Greeks, who added the cross at the top, called it ‘tau’.

Letter U

The earliest form of the letter ‘U’ was like ‘Y’. A couple of thousands of years ago, it was called ‘waw’, and meant ‘peg.’ This is the Greek letter ‘upsilon.’

Letter V

The Romans used to write V and U interchangeably, which was regulated later, and these two became separate letters of different use.

Letter W

This letter was found in the scripts of Charlemagne who wrote two ‘u’s’ side by side. The repeated letters were separated by a space, whereas the sound made was similar to ‘v.’ The letter ‘W’ was printed in the 18th century for the first time.

Letter X

The ancient Greek letter ‘ksi’ sounded like ‘X’, and it was discovered in some medieval manuscripts as well.

Letter Y

The Roman variant of the letter ‘upsilon’ became the letter ‘Y’ of the Latin alphabet in 100 AD.

Letter Z

The Phoenician letter ‘zayin’ which meant an ‘ax’, looked like the letter ‘I’ with serifs at the top and bottom. The Greeks borrowed it and named ‘zeta’. With the arrival of the Norman French and their words, this letter started being used actively.

At the end of this alphabetical journey, we may see the magnificence of each letter, because each of them had its own path and transformation. That process, which lasted for many centuries, gave us the ability to write and read in many languages, not only in English, but only on its way to the English language, this journey lasted longer than to the other European languages. Who knows which path will the alphabet take into a few hundred years’ time?

Translation Services USA® is the registered trademark of Translation Services USA LLC, New York, New Jersey