The Free Dictionary Blog > See how letters came from words (not the other way around)
See how letters came from words (not the other way around)
The Roman alphabet has its ultimate roots in Egypt. Before around 1750 BCE, the Canaanites, a Semitic people of Palestine and Syria who also lived in Egypt, developed an alphabet based on Egyptian hieroglyphs. They used an Egyptian sign to represent the first consonant of the Canaanite word for the thing depicted by the sign. For example, the Canaanite word for "house" began with the sound (b), so they used the sign for "house" to represent (b). In this way, (spoken) words led to the creation of letters, which were then used to spell words.
This alphabet contained only consonants and could be written in virtually any direction. The Phoenicians brought a modified version of the alphabet to the Greeks through trade. Some of the letters, such as 'aleph (glottal stop) and 'ayin (a voiced pharyngeal), represented non-Greek sounds that the Greeks probably did not perceive accurately. The Greeks took these letters to represent other sounds. 'Aleph was adopted as alpha for the vowel (a) and 'ayin as omīcron for the vowel (o). In some Levantine scripts of Canaanite origin, wāw and yōd could represent vowels (u) and (i) as well as (w) and (y), and the Greeks adopted this practice too.
In Italy, a western variant of the Greek alphabet was adopted by the Etruscans. Our modern letters derive from the Romans, who adapted the Etruscan script for monumental inscriptions and wrote from left to right. Because Etruscan writing did not distinguish between the sounds of c and g, the Romans created the new letter G by adding a stroke to C. The classical Greek Y and Z were added to represent the sounds (ü) and (z) in words borrowed from Greek.
The English alphabet reached its total of 26 letters only after medieval scribes added w (originally written uu and Renaissance printers separated the variant pairs i/j and u/v. During the Middle Ages, the Roman capitals evolved into uncials and then to Carolingian minuscules and Italic cursive script, which are the prototypes of many modern printed and handwritten letters.
Take a look at the chart to see the evolution of letters from hieroglyphs to our modern alphabet.
Do you know the 27th letter of the alphabet?
Get all volumes of The Farlex Grammar Book in paperback or eBook.