The Latin Alphabet

[Alphabets] The Latin alphabet of 23 letters was derived in the 600's BC from the Etruscan alphabet of 26 letters, which was in turn derived from the archaic Greek alphabet, which came from the Phoenician. The letters J, U, and W of the modern alphabet were added in medieval times, and did not appear in the classical alphabet, except that J and U could be alternative forms for I and V. A comparison of the Greek and Latin alphabets shows the close relation between the two. Green letters are those introduced later, after the alphabets had been adopted, and red letters are those that were eliminated from the archaic alphabet.

The digamma, which represented a 'w' sound in Greek was adopted for the different Latin sound 'f' that did not occur in Greek. The gamma was written C in Etruscan, and represented both the hard 'g' and 'k' sounds in Latin, which was confusing. Latin also used the K for the 'k' sound at that time, but the C spelling became popular. Z was a sound not used in Latin, so it was thrown out of the alphabet and replaced by a modified C, a C with a tail, for the 'g' sound. Eventually, K became vestigial in Latin, used only for a few words like Kalendae and Kaeso (a name). Gaius was also spelled Caius, and its abbreviation was always C. Koppa became the model for Q, which in Latin was always used in the combination QV, pronounced 'kw,' a sound that does not occur in Greek.

The Phoenician alphabet only went up to T. All the letters beyond T are later additions to the alphabet. The Romans added V at once, which was sorely needed, then X for 'ks,' pronounced like the Greek X , though it looks more like Greek X, which represents a sound absent from Latin. The X was probably considered much easier to write. Finally, Y and Z were appended in the first century BC to spell Greek loan words, and these had their Greek sounds. In Latin, I and V had both consonantal and vowel sounds. The Emperor Claudius made an attempt to distinguish them by inventing new letters (plus a letter for ps), but the reform did not take hold. Only in medieval times (11th century) did J and W solve the problem. In fact, V began to acquire its modern pronunciation as a voiced dental, which became further confused with the Greek beta sound, becoming practically a B in Spanish, where the normal V sound is heard as an F. In German, V is indeed an F. The original V has many aliases: U, W, F and B to represent its assorted sounds.

The Greeks interpolated the aspirate Q (th) and the double consonant X (ks) in the body of the alphabet for some reason, so they correspond to gaps in the Latin alphabet. After tau, they added Y, which represents a very different sound than the Latin V, then the aspirates F (ph) and X (kh), the double letter Y , and finally the long vowel W . H, which originally was like the Latin H, was commandeered for the long E.

[Roman Numerals] Some of the old letters dropped from the Greek alphabet were retained as numbers. The same thing happened in Latin with a few of the Etruscan letters that did not correspond to Latin sounds, as shown at the left. The number symbols evolved into the normal letters C, L, M and D in the course of time, though the symbol for 1000 was adapted for expressing larger powers of 10 by adding more forward and backward C's. It is said that the L came from the Etruscan chi, but it could just as well have been half of the C symbol, as the D comes from half of the M. All these number symbols represented abacus counter columns, together with the I, V and X, so that I, C and M need be repeated no more than four times, V, L, and D no more than twice, in specifying a number. The representation of large numbers and of fractions in Roman numerals or Greek numerals is a complicated subject. Roman numerals were used for business, Greek numerals for science.

A reference for alphabet lore is D. Diringer, The Alphabet, 3rd. ed. (London: Hutchinson, 1968). Alphabets, of course, represent the elementary sounds of speech, which are combined to form syllables, and the syllables into words, expressing speech in terms of a small number of symbols. This should be contrasted with the use of pictures, conventionalized or realistic, to represent objects or recall events, and not the sounds of language. Egyptian and Chinese writing is intermediate. Egyptian, using hundreds of glyphs, is closer to alphabetic, while Chinese, using thousands of conventionalized ideograms, is closer to pictorial. While these systems are very good for Egyptian or Chinese, they are poorly adapted to languages like Latin or Greek, which provided the stimulus for the development of alphabets.

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Composed by J. B. Calvert
Last revised 8 August 1999