Where did our al­pha­bet orig­i­nate?

Otago Daily Times - - DIVERSIONS - JOHN HALE

A reader asked: Did we get our whole al­pha­bet from Latin? Was the /z/ added to our al­pha­bet? When, and why?

Latin, yes

Yes, our al­pha­bet is closely based on the Latin one of 23 let­ters, which reached Eng­land with Chris­tian­ity. It had no W, and no dis­tinc­tion of I (vowel) from J (con­so­nant), and the same with U and V. English adopted the main se­quence of the let­ters too.

Added, no

But Z wasn’t added to English: it had ar­rived be­fore, from Latin. Latin it­self had added Y and Z at the end of its na­tive­let­ters se­quence, from Greek. This must be why Y in French is called i grec or y grec (i greca in Ital­ian).

Why and when?

Words us­ing Z were added to English in great num­bers on either side of 1600. Many were in­tel­lec­tual, med­i­cal or sci­en­tific: anat­o­mize, cau­ter­ize. Two things among many caused this up­surge of zed­words. First, science and phi­los­o­phy and diplo­macy were con­ducted in Latin: the in­tel­li­gentsia of Europe spoke to each other in Latin. Us­ing Latin meant us­ing Greek thinkers, ab­sorb­ing their lan­guage as Ro­mans had long done. Sec­ondly, Greek it­self was more stud­ied in Eng­land than ever be­fore or since, up till Civil War broke out in 1640.


The new­est let­ter is W, ‘‘dou­ble U’’. This rep­re­sents the sound of W in Old English. Even when a Latin sound was sim­i­lar, like the V of Cae­sar’s no­to­ri­ously im­mod­est Veni, vidi, vici (I came, I saw, I con­quered), the let­ter W de­noted na­tive, or OE/ME English words — seen in what won­der­ful words. Next ques­tion: How did Old English spell it­self be­fore adopt­ing the Ro­man al­pha­bet?

Read­ing the runes

For hun­dreds of years, roughly till print­ing, English used runes, as did other Ger­manic and Scan­di­na­vian lan­guages. A rune means a dark se­cret, mys­tery, or let­ter. (Read­ing is a mys­tery till you learn how.) The runes were also known as Futhark, an acro­nym of its first six let­ters: F, U, Th, A, R, K. Futhark was named on the same ba­sis as al­pha­bet, first few let­ters made into a name; from Latin’s al­pha­be­tum or Greek’s al­pha­betos. A read­ing primer was known as an abcy book: where you ‘‘learnt your ABC’’.

Fur­ther back

Scripts and their sounds, and the whole ar­range­ment, go much fur­ther back. Greek’s al­pha beta gamma delta ep­silon zeta eta theta iota kappa lamda mu nu omi­cron pi rho sigma tau up­silon phi chi psi omega still turn up in maths as sym­bols: they go back about 3000 years. O­mi­cron is the ‘‘lit­tle [i.e. short] O­sound’’, O­mega is the ‘‘big [i.e. long]’’ one. But the Greeks got their al­pha­bet from the Phoeni­cians ...


We owe the Greeks for some­thing else. From the an­cient Semitic tongues they bor­rowed a right­to­left se­quence of writ­ing. Then, since writ­ing largely com­prised in­scrip­tions in long lines, they be­gan in­scrib­ing in both di­rec­tions, R to L then L to R, and so on, like in­testines, or (as they called it) bous­tro­phe­don,

‘‘as a plough­ing ox turns’’. Then they set­tled on L to R. Pre­sum­ably that was eas­ier for the right­handed ma­jor­ity, once writ­ing wasn’t la­bo­ri­ous chip­ping at stones but writ­ing on a smaller softer sur­face.


Even fur­ther back, let­ters were pic­tures or ideograms (as still in Chi­nese), con­ven­tional signs for idea rather than sound. English uses a few of these, too: on my key­board I see /$/, /%/ and /&/. What a his­tor­i­cal trea­sure­trove a key­board is.


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