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