The Origin of the English Alphabet (and all its 26 letters)
The English alphabet has a fascinating history, and the development of each letter of the alphabet has its own story. Although English is widely spoken, for non-English speakers, the English language is one of the most difficult languages to learn. Indeed, there are many consistencies in English because several different languages came into the picture during its years of development. Scholars, missionaries and conquerors shaped the English language into what we know and speak today.
Forebears of alphabetic writing
The early alphabetic writing started about four thousand years ago. According to many scholars, it was in Egypt that alphabetic writing developed between 1800 and 1900 BC. The origin was a Proto-Sinaitic (Proto-Canaanite) form of writing that was not very well known.
About 700 years after, the Phoenicians developed an alphabet based on the earlier foundations. It was widely used in the Mediterranean, including southern Europe, North Africa, the Iberian Peninsula and the Levant. The alphabet was made up of 22 letters, all of the consonants.
In 750 BC, the Greeks added vowels to the Phoenician alphabet and the combination was regarded as the initial true alphabet. This was seized by the Latins (Romans) and combined with some Etruscan characters such as the letter S and F. Around the third century, ancient Latin script removed the letters G, J, V/U, W, Y and Z. When the Roman Empire was ruling parts of the world, they introduced the Roman alphabet derived from the Latin version, although the letters J, U/V and W were still omitted.
Evolution of the English alphabet
When the Roman Empire reached Britain, they brought with them the Latin language. Britain at that time was under the control of the Anglo-Saxons, a Germanic tribe that used Old English as their language. At that time Old English was using Futhorc, an older alphabet. It was also called a runic alphabet.
The combination of the Latin alphabet and the runic alphabet of Futhorc resulted in the modern English alphabet. Some of the additions from the runic alphabets were 'thorn' that had a 'th' sound and 'wynn' that made a 'w' sound. Remember that there was no letter 'w' in the Latin alphabet. In the Middle Ages, when the people in Britain ceased to use the old runes, the letter thorn was eventually substituted by 'th', and the runic 'wynn' became 'uu' that later evolved into 'w.'
Later in the same period, the letters 'j' and 'u' were added and brought the number of letters to 26. However, the letter combinations like 'æ,' 'œ' and the symbol ampersand (&) were included in the alphabet.
When the Normans invaded Britain in 1066 AD, the lowborn were using Old English. The scholars, clergy and nobility were writing and speaking in Latin or Norman. After two centuries under Norman rule, writing in English became popular again, with some of the Old English letters removed. Geoffrey Chaucer used middle English in the Canterbury Tales' Wife of Bath.
In the 15 century, the printing press was introduced to Great Britain by William Caxton. By this time, the English language was standardized. From being used interchangeably, the letters V and U were separated, with the former becoming a consonant while using U as a vowel.
The Table Alphabeticall, the first dictionary in English, published by Robert Cawdrey in 1604. The letter J was also added to Modern English, during this time as well.
What is an alphabet?
The letters used by a language are collectively called an alphabet. It has a fixed order based on the custom of the users. The alphabet is used for writing and the symbols used for writing are called letters. Each letter represents one sound or a related sound (also called phoneme) used by the spoken language. With the help of a standard reading direction, spaces and punctuation marks, the alphabet forms words which can be easily read by readers.
The term 'alphabet' came from the first two letters of the Phoenician alphabet – 'Aleph' and 'Beth.' While some languages have their own set of alphabets, the most commonly used is the Latin alphabet, which is also shared by several languages aside from English.
Stories of the letters of the English alphabet
It is probable that you are one of the many people who learned the English alphabet at a very young age. Your parents might have taught you to recite the alphabet as well as sing 'The Alphabet Song.' But the time you reach pre-school age, you know most of the letters of the English alphabet and can form simple words. When you started school, you were once again introduced to the English alphabet and learned more words by combining the letters.
Since you started by learning the English alphabet, it is natural that you take it for granted and not have an interest in learning its history and the stories about the formation of each letter.
The modern alphabet with 26 letters started in the 16th century. The development of the English alphabet had influences from the Semitic, Phoenician, Greek and Roman scripts. It's quite interesting to learn how each letter was formed.
The original shape of the letter A was upside down. It was introduced in the 1800s. Being inverted, it looked like the head of an animal with horns or antlers. It was fitting because, in ancient Semitic, the letter translates to 'ox.'
In its original form, the letter B was borrowed from the Egyptian hieroglyphics and with the letter resting on its belly. In its original shape, it looked like a house with a door, a roof and a room. The symbol represented 'shelter' about 4,000 years ago.
The letter came from the Phoenicians. It was shaped like a boomerang or hunter's stick. The Greeks called it 'gamma', and from being written facing the other direction, it was flipped to the direction it is written today, with the Italians giving it a better crescent shape.
'Dalet' was the name given to the letter D by the Phoenicians in 800 BC. It originally looked like a rough triangle that faced left. The original meaning of the letter is 'door.' When the Greeks adopted the alphabet, they gave it the name 'delta.' It was later flipped, and the Romans gave the right side of the letter a semicircle shape.
About 3,800 years ago, the letter 'E' was pronounced as an 'H' in the Semitic language. It looked like a stick figure of a human with two arms and one leg. In 700 BC, the Geeks flipped it, and they changed the pronunciation into an 'ee' sound.
The letter 'F' was from the Phoenicians and it looked more like a 'Y.' When it was pronounced at that time, the sound made was close to 'waw.' The ancient Greeks renamed it 'digamma' and tipped it to resemble the present-day F. The Romans made it look better by giving it a more geometric shape and changed the sound to 'fff.'
The letter 'G' came from 'zeta' of the Greeks. At first, it looked like an 'I', but the pronunciation made a 'zzz' sound. The Romans changed its shape around 250 BC, giving it top and lower arms and a 'g' sound. Latin did not have a 'z' sound. In the course of its development, the straight lines became curved, ending with its present crescent shape.
The letter 'H' came from the Egyptians and used as a symbol for fence. It made a breathy sound when pronounced so early academicians thought that it was not necessary and the British and Latin scholars eventually dropped the letter H from the English alphabet by around 500 AD.
The letter 'I' was called 'yod' in 1000 BC. It meant hand and arm. The Greeks called it 'iota' and made it vertical. In its evolution, it turned into a straight line around 700 BC.
The letter 'I' also used to stand for the 'J' sound in ancient times. It got its shape letter in the 15th century as a contribution of the Spanish language. It was only about 1640 when the letter regularly appeared in print.
The letter 'K' is an old letter, as it came from the Egyptian hieroglyphics. In the Semitic language, it was given the name 'kaph' which translated into 'palm of the hand.' In those times, the letter faced the other way. When the Greeks adopted it in 800 BC, it became 'kappa' and flipped to the right.
In ancient Semitic, the present-day letter 'L' was upside down. Thus it looked like a hooked letter. It was already called 'El,' which meant 'God.' The Phoenicians were responsible for giving it a reversed look, with the hook facing left. They straightened the hook a bit, and they changed the name to 'lamed' (pronounced lah-med), a cattle prod. The Greeks called it 'lambda' and turned it around to face right. The final look of the letter 'L' with the straight foot at a right angle was courtesy of the Romans.
The origin of the letter 'M' was the wavy vertical lines with five peaks to symbolize water according to the Egyptians. In 1800 BC the Semites reduced the lines to three waves, and the Phoenicians removed one more wave. In 800 BC, the peaks were turned into zigzags and flipped horizontally to form the letter M we know today.
Another Egyptian symbol was the letter 'N' that originally looked like a small ripple atop a larger ripple that stood for cobra or snake. It was given the 'n' sound by the ancient Semites, which symbolized 'fish.' Around 1000 BC, only one ripple appeared, and the Greeks named it 'nu.'
The letter 'O' came from the Egyptians as well. It was called 'eye' in Egyptian and 'ayin' in Semites. The Phoenicians further reduced the hieroglyphics, leaving only the pupil's outline.
In the ancient Semitic language, today's letter 'P' looked like an inverted 'V.' It was pronounced 'pe' that meant 'mouth.' The Phoenicians turned its top into a diagonal hook shape. In 200 BC, the Romans flipped it to the right and closed the loop to form the 'P.'
The original sound of the letter 'Q' was like 'qoph' that translated into a ball of wool or monkey. It was written initially as a circle traversed by a vertical line. In the Roman inscriptions around 520 BC, the letter appeared as we know it today.
The profile of a human facing left was the original shape of the letter 'R' as written by the Semites. It was pronounced 'resh' that meant 'head.' The Romans turned it to the right and added an inclined foot.
The letter 'S' used to appear like a horizontal wavy W that was used to represent the bow of an archer. The angularity of the shape was from the Phoenicians, who gave it the name 'shin' that translated into 'tooth. The Romans flipped it to a vertical position and named it 'sigma' while the Romans flipped it to the position the letter has today.
The ancient Semites used the lower case form of the letter 'T' we see today. The Phoenicians called the letter 'taw' (mark) that sounded like 'tee' when pronounced. It was called 'tau' by the Greeks. They also added the cross at the top of the letter to distinguish it from the letter 'X.'
The letter 'U' initially looked like 'Y' in 1000 BC. At that time it was called 'waw' that meant 'peg.' Under the Greeks, it was called 'upsilon.'
The Romans used V and U interchangeably. The distinction started to appear around the 1400s.
The letter 'W' started during the Middle Ages, with the scribes of Charlemagne writing two 'u's' side by side, separated by a space. At that time the sound made was similar to 'v.' The letter appeared in print as a unique letter 'W' in 1700.
The letter 'ksi' of ancient Greeks sounded like 'X.' The lowercase form of the letter 'X' were seen at the handwritten manuscripts available during the medieval times. Late 15th-century Italian printers also used lower case 'X's.'
From starting out as 'upsilon' the letter Y was added by the Romans in 100 AD.
The Phoenicians used to have a letter called 'zayin.' It meant an 'ax.' Initially, it looked like the letter 'I' with serifs at the top and bottom. Around 800 BC, it was adopted as 'zeta' by the Greeks and given the sound 'dz.' It was not used for several centuries until the arrival of the Norman French and their words that needed the sound of the letter 'Z.'