The History of English Podcast - Episode 15: Etruscans, Romans and a Modified Alphabet

🎁Amazon Prime 📖Kindle Unlimited 🎧Audible Plus 🎵Amazon Music Unlimited 🌿iHerb 💰Binance

Welcome to the History of English podcast, a podcast about the history of the English


This is episode 15, Etruscans, Romans, and a Modified Alphabet.

In this episode, we’re going to turn our attention from the Eastern Mediterranean to the West,

specifically to Italy.

In the past few episodes, I’ve discussed the significant influence of Greek on English.

Now we start to look at the tremendous influence of Latin.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier episodes, Modern English is pretty much a blend of Germanic

languages and Latin.

If you look through a modern English dictionary, you actually have to work to find words that

didn’t find their way into English through either Latin or the Germanic languages.

There are obviously words from other sources, but their numbers are tiny in comparison to

the words we get from Old English, Old Norse, Latin, French, and Greek words that come into

English through Latin and French.

Now, as I’ve looked over my notes in preparing this episode, I came to the very quick realization

that I could spend many episodes on Latin and its influences on English.

But for now, I’m going to focus on the basics.

How did Latin emerge from the original Indo-European language?

How did Rome emerge as such a powerful city-state?

And how did Latin spread from the Italian peninsula to eventually encompass almost all

of continental Europe west of the Rhine?

Since a lot of Latin influence on English came with the Norman French in 1066, I’ll

discuss that part of the story later when we get to the Norman invasion and the period

of Middle English.

So for now, the focus will be on the early Latin language and its influence on the Germanic

languages to the north.

And speaking of those Germanic languages, they are also part of this story.

As we look at the spread of the Roman Empire and its Latin language into Western Europe,

we’ll start to look at the people who inhabited that area, specifically the Celts and the

Germanic tribes.

But for this episode, we’re just going to look at what happened first in Italy.

I should also note that this story also includes the spread of the alphabet, because the alphabet

was exported from Greece and underwent a lot of change by the time the Romans were done

with it.

And as I’ve mentioned in the last couple of episodes, I’m working on a special series

dedicated to the history of the alphabet and each of the letters which we use today.

And I’m still putting that together and I hope to have it completed very soon, so stay

tuned for more information on that.

So let’s begin this episode with the arrival of Indo-European speaking tribes into the

Italian peninsula.

And the time frame here is not known with any real certainty.

The last time I discussed the ancestors of the Latin speakers was back in episode 11.

And I discussed the early expansion of the Indo-European tribes into Europe.

And I mentioned that a group of Indo-European tribes had moved around the western side of

the Black Sea into the region south of the Carpathian Mountains in the Danube Valley.

Now as you may recall from that episode, the Carpathian Mountains form a wedge shape on

the western side of the Black Sea.

And as a result, that mountain range tended to force westward moving tribes either northwestward

along the northern side of the Carpathians or southwestward along the southern side into

the Balkans and down into the Danube Valley.

Basically in the region where the river Danube flows from Central Europe into the Black Sea.

And I noted back in that episode that it’s believed that the ancestors of the Germanic

tribes took the northwestward route since that route was a direct path to northern

Europe where the Germanic languages and the Germanic speaking tribes eventually emerged.

Now for this same reason, many historians believe that the Latin speakers must have

taken the southern route through the Balkan region and the Danube Valley since the Latin

speakers ended up in southern Europe in Italy.

But not all historians agree with that view.

Some believe that the ancestors of the Latin speakers took essentially the same path as

the Germanic speaking tribes along that northwestern route and that once they found themselves

in north central Europe, they then migrated southward into Italy.

And I just wanted to acknowledge at this point that there are differing views about how the

early Latin speaking tribes found their way into Italy.

Now the version of the story which I presented back in episode 11 was the southern theory.

I suggested that the ancestors of the Latin speakers had migrated southward from the Black

Sea region and were located in the Danube Valley in the Balkan region around the third

millennium BC.

And I also noted in that episode that some language historians believe that the Indo-European

tribes in this region included both the ancestors of the Latin speaking tribes and the Celtic

speaking tribes.

And this is based upon some strong linguistic similarities between those two languages.

And it’s believed that the ancestors of the Celtic speaking tribes migrated from this

region in the vicinity of modern Hungary and from there they migrated northward into central

Europe into the region around modern Austria and Bavaria.

And I’ll take a much closer look at the Celtic tribes in an upcoming episode.

In fact, the story of modern English is really the story of the convergence of the Latin

speaking Romans from Italy, the Germanic speaking tribes from northern Europe into an area previously

occupied by Celtic speaking people in Britain.

So the history of these three groups is essential to our story and really essential to the overall

history of Western Europe.

But for now, let’s look back to the Danube Valley, where we probably still have the ancestors

of the Latin speakers.

Over the next 1500 to 2000 years, we have a general migration of these tribes into Italy.

And the exact time frames, again, are not known with any real certainty.

But let’s keep in mind that it’s believed that there were a variety of Indo-European

tribes in this region during this time frame.

We’ve already discussed the migration of tribes from the same region into Greece, which led

to the destruction of the early Greek Mycenaean civilization and the ultimate expansion and

invasion of Sea Peoples throughout the Eastern Mediterranean.

And the Dorian Greek ancestors are believed to be direct descendants of these migrating


We know with some certainty that there were tribes in this Balkan region north of Greece

in and around southeastern Europe around 1200 BC during the time in which Greece was experiencing

these pressures and invasions from the north.

And it’s very possible that these expansions were due to population growth.

And it’s also possible that some of these tribes in this region included the ancestors

of the Latin speakers.

But again, I say it’s possible because there are some historians who advocate this connection,

but we may never know for certain whether the Latin-speaking ancestors were in fact

part of these tribes.

But we can say that Indo-European tribes were starting to appear in Italy a short time later.

By the time of the written history of Italy a few centuries later, most of the people

who inhabited Italy spoke Indo-European languages, what we know today as the Italic languages.

And one group of those tribes settled in an area along the western coast of Italy.

And these were the ancestors of the Latin speakers.

But again, early Latin was only one of several Indo-European languages being spoken in Italy

at the time.

In fact, the earliest known Latin dialects were actually quite different from other Indo-European

languages being spoken in Italy early on.

Now let’s focus on western Italy because what happened here over the next few centuries

would set in motion a series of events which would ultimately define much of the history

of the western world.

Some of these Indo-European tribes, who spoke a very early version of Latin, began to settle

in and around the Tiber River in western Italy around 800 BC.

This region was surrounded by several hills which afforded these tribes some protection

from outside tribes.

And keep in mind that these were just a portion of the interrelated Latin-speaking tribes.

Some of the other Latin-speaking tribes settled in neighboring territories.

Now this hilly region around the Tiber River would eventually emerge into a settlement

which we would come to know as Rome.

Now the actual beginnings of Roman history are obscure.

The later day Romans created their own myths to explain the early history of the city.

One famous myth told of twin brothers named Romulus and Remus.

They built the early city and Romulus became the first king, thereby giving the city its

name, Rome.

Of course, there is a lot more to this mythological story, but it was myth.

The actual story is revealed by archaeology.

By around 750 BC, settlers were living in huts around the Palatine Hill, which was one

of the hills near the Tiber River.

Eventually settlements spread out and began to appear on several of the neighboring hills.

About a century later, say around 650 BC, the various settlements joined together to

form the city-state of Rome.

Now this early settlement of Rome was located at the northern limit of a fertile agricultural

region known as Latium.

And Latium extended up to the Tiber River, and the inhabitants of this general area were

known as the Latins.

And the language of the people in this region came to be known as Latin.

So the name Latin came from the region where these Indo-European tribes settled, Latium.

Now as I said, these initial Indo-European settlers in and around the region of Rome

were just some of the many competing tribes during this period in and around the same


Most of these competing tribes also spoke Indo-European languages, including several

who spoke early dialects which we would come to know as Latin.

All of these tribes had their own gods and customs, and they fought amongst themselves

for power and influence.

And they were shepherds, and hunters, and farmers.

But over time, the peoples who inhabited the hills around the emerging settlement of Rome

began to speak a specific dialect and began to emerge as a distinct group of early people

who we can begin to call the Romans.

But before we go any further in our discussion of the early Romans, we have to stop and consider

their immediate neighbors to the north, the Etruscans.

The Etruscans are extremely important to this story for two reasons.

First, for much of the very early history of Rome, the settlement was under the control

and influence of those Etruscans.

So even though the Latin-speaking tribes occupied much of early Rome, the emerging city was

actually governed and controlled by the Etruscans.

And the second reason why the Etruscans are so important is because the alphabet went

through them before it got to the Latin-speaking Romans.

The Etruscans had borrowed the alphabet from the Greeks and made some basic changes to


And about a century later, the early Latin-speaking Romans took the alphabet from the Etruscans

and applied it to their Indo-European language and made some more changes to it.

So let’s take a look at these Etruscans.

And first, let’s consider the geography for a second.

Now Rome lies about midway along the western coast of Italy.

And during these ancient times, the area just to the north of Rome, all the way to the north

of modern Italy, was the Etruscan territory.

And it was basically the northwestern corner of Italy, and it includes modern-day Tuscany

and its capital, Florence.

Now the Etruscan civilization was actually in place before the Latin-speaking tribes

arrived in the hills around modern Rome.

And the first thing to understand about the Etruscans is that they were not Indo-Europeans.

Historians don’t know exactly where the Etruscans came from, but they seem to have emerged as

a distinct civilization in the 8th century BC.

Now grave evidence confirms that the Etruscans were in Italy by 750 BC.

And this would have been shortly before or around the same time that the first Indo-Europeans

were beginning to settle into the territory that would eventually emerge as Rome.

So that makes the Etruscan civilization the first civilized society in Italy.

And the Etruscans built cities, and they engaged in commerce, and they had a very advanced


Now the Etruscans were similar to the Phoenicians in many respects.

They were both a loose collection of city-states.

And they were both focused primarily on trade and commerce, not military conquest or empire.

And like the Phoenicians, the Etruscans did not have a strong central government.

And this weakness would have major implications for the civilization later on.

But for now, it was a quickly emerging commercial and cultural power in northern Italy.

And again, this was a time when Rome would have been nothing more than a simple village,

if even that.

Now in terms of the Etruscan civilization itself, their art was superb, and it rivaled

the best art of classical Greece.

And the Etruscans also built sophisticated roads, and drains, and aqueducts.

And they were very skilled metalworkers, and they produced high-quality products from tin

and copper, iron and gold, which was abundant in the Etruscan hills.

And this is one of the main reasons why the Greeks were so interested in the Etruscan


The Greeks were interested in the metals, as well as the metal artwork and other artifacts

produced by the Etruscans.

And the Etruscans began trading these goods across the Mediterranean into Europe itself.

And by the 7th century BC, they were trading heavily with the Greeks, who supplied the

Etruscans with a variety of luxury goods.

And the Etruscans are also famous for works of art, including frescoes and decorated urns.

Now let’s turn to the Etruscan language.

As I said earlier, the Etruscan civilization was not an Indo-European civilization.

The Etruscan language was distinct, and it was unlike any other known language in the

ancient world.

The origin of the Etruscans is a mystery.

The Greek historian Herodotus said that they came from Lydia in Anatolia, and many later-day

Roman historians also accepted this theory.

Now Lydia was an area of Anatolia, near the Hittite Empire, and the Lydian language was

closely related to Hittite within the Anatolian family of languages.

So that means Lydian and Hittite were both Indo-European languages.

But the Etruscan language was not an Indo-European language.

Now the Greek historian Dionysius said that the Etruscans were native people who had inhabited

this region of Italy from the earliest known times.

And he noted that they did not speak a Lydian language.

And today historians are still divided on the issue.

But one thing we can say is that regardless of their origin, the Etruscan language was

definitely not Indo-European.

Now most of what is known about the language comes from a small number of inscriptions

which have been discovered.

About 10,000 brief inscriptions have survived in Etruscan, but linguists have had a very

difficult time translating those inscriptions.

And only about 100 root words have been translated with any degree of accuracy.

But these translations reveal that some of these words may have filtered down into the

Roman settlement to the south and found their way into later day Latin and eventually found

their way into modern English.

The modern English word histrionics comes from the Latin word hister which meant actor.

And the Latin word hister may have come from the Etruscan language.

Also words like person, personal, and persona come from the Latin word persona.

And this word may have come from the Etruscan word persu which meant mask in Etruscan.

And the modern English word atrium comes from Latin, but it too may have had Etruscan origins.

And words like military and militia come from a Latin root word milis which meant soldier

in Latin and again may have come from Etruscan.

And the modern English word satellite also came from Latin but may have originally derived

from the Etruscan word satellus which meant bodyguard.

So these are just some examples of Etruscan words which found their way into Latin and

eventually into English.

But there were quite a few other Etruscan words which entered Latin and didn’t make

their way into English.

But what’s really interesting here is the connection between the Etruscans and the Greeks.

Remember from our discussion of the Greeks in earlier episodes that the Greeks had established

colonies throughout the northern Mediterranean.

And this included colonies in Sicily and southern Italy.

And these Greek influences poured into the early Etruscan civilization.

And both Etruscan and Greek influences began to pour into the emerging settlement at Rome

as well.

Now because of their extensive contacts with the Greeks and the Greek colonies, the Etruscans

began to borrow words from the Greeks, especially words related to ships and shipping.

Of the total number of Etruscan words which passed into later day Latin, about 25% of

the Etruscan words came from Greek origins.

And when nautical terms are taken into account, the proportion rises to 75% being from Greek


And among the words which came from Greek via Etruscan were the Latin words for ant,

cloak, mask, steering oar, and pretty boy.

It should also be noted that the Etruscan words for wineskin flask, handled cup, jug,

and oil bottle also closely resemble the Greek words for such items.

But for purposes of the history of English, the most important thing the Etruscans borrowed

from the Greeks was not some words, it was the Greek alphabet.

Just as the Greeks had discovered and adopted the alphabet through their trading connections

with the Phoenicians, the same thing happened again here.

The Etruscans encountered the Greek traders, and they too discovered the alphabet which

the Greeks had been using for about a century.

So they did just what the Greeks had done.

They took the alphabet and they applied it to their language.

It appears that the Etruscans adopted the alphabet from the Greeks around 700 BC, maybe

a bit earlier.

And that was about a century after the Greeks had adopted it from the Phoenicians.

A writing tablet has been unearthed from an Etruscan tomb near Florence which dates to

around 660 BC.

And the tablet frame has 26 letters written from right to left.

And they are identical to the letters used in Western Greece which suggest that the Etruscans

borrowed the letters from the Greeks initially in their exact same form.

A clue as to the date of the inscription is the fact that the list of letters omits the

final Greek letter omega which appeared in the Greek alphabet around 660 BC.

Therefore this Etruscan tablet was likely created prior to that date, prior to 660 BC.

Now the Greek letter omega never made it to the Etruscan alphabet.

And the Etruscans eventually dropped five other Greek letters which represented sounds

that did not exist in Etruscan.

The Etruscan language apparently had no B sound, ba, no D sound, da, and no G sound,


Now linguists call these sounds voice stops and apparently Etruscans did not use voice

stops at all in their language.

Now there are unvoiced versions of those sounds.

The unvoiced version of B, ba, is P, pa.

And the unvoiced version of the D sound, da, is the T sound, ta.

And the unvoiced version of the G sound, ga, is the K sound, ka.

And the Etruscan language had all of these unvoiced sounds.

The P sound, the T sound, and the K sound.

And if you’ll remember back to the episode I did about the letter C, that’s part of

what happened to that letter at this point.

Remember that the third letter in Greek was gamma and it had the G sound.

But as I just said, the Etruscans didn’t have a G sound.

They only had the unvoiced version of that sound which was the K sound.

So the third letter, gamma, was pronounced by the Etruscans with a K sound because they

didn’t have a G sound.

And that’s ultimately how the Romans inherited it.

And that’s why the third letter became the modern letter C in Latin and was used to represent

the K sound just as the Etruscans had used it.

And that was just one of the many changes which occurred to the alphabet during the

time that the Etruscans used it.

And I’ll discuss those changes in much more detail in the alphabet series which I’ll be

releasing soon.

But the key here is that Greek was an Indo-European language and the Etruscan language was not.

So the Etruscans had to make changes to the alphabet to make it fit their language.

Now this was the same process that the Greeks had to go through when they tried to apply

the Phoenician alphabet to their language.

And when the Romans later borrowed the alphabet from the Etruscans, they also had to make

some significant changes.

Because at that point, the alphabet was moving from a non-Indo-European language, Etruscan,

to an Indo-European language, Latin.

So once again, changes had to be made to make the sounds work in that language.

And it’s interesting though that the alphabet has undergone relatively few changes by comparison

since the Romans adopted it.

And at least as it relates to English, that’s partly due to the fact that English and Latin

are both Indo-European languages.

English didn’t have to make a lot of changes to the Roman alphabet because both languages

generally have the same sounds.

I mean, there are some differences between Latin phonemes and Old English phonemes, but

compared to non-Indo-European languages, the differences were minimal.

And therefore, very few changes had to be made to the alphabet to make it fit English.

Now once the Etruscans had borrowed the alphabet from the Greeks and adapted it to their language,

it quickly spread throughout the Etruscan territory.

And this is a recurring theme at this point.

Just like in Greece, as soon as a new society discovered and borrowed the alphabet into

their language, literacy quickly spread throughout the society since the alphabet was so easy

to learn and master.

And because of the power and influence of the Etruscan civilization in Italy, especially

northern Italy, the alphabet quickly spread out from the Etruscan territory to the non-Etruscan

people who lived around them and throughout northern Italy.

And this included the Latin-speaking Romans to their south who inherited the alphabet

from the Etruscans around 600 BC.

So around 800 BC, the Greeks had borrowed the alphabet.

And around 700 BC, the Etruscans had borrowed it.

And around 600 BC, the Romans had borrowed it.

So we’re moving in hundred-year increments, and that illustrates how quickly the alphabet

was spreading throughout the Mediterranean.

One other quick note about Etruscan writing before we turn our attention back to the Romans.

The Etruscans wrote sentences in both directions, left to right and right to left, but they

preferred to write from right to left, like the original Phoenicians and the early Greeks

had done.

So it’s not until we get to the Romans that we finally see a consistent change to the

left-to-right style of writing that we use today.

So with the Etruscan civilization firmly entrenched in northwestern Italy, and with

a new alphabet for writing their language, we can now turn our attention back to the

early settlement to the south which was slowly emerging as the city of Rome.

But when we left Rome, it wasn’t really a city yet.

We had some Indo-European tribes who spoke an early version of Latin, and they lived

in huts in the hills around the Tiber River in the area which would eventually become


They herded sheep and cattle and maintained goats and pigs, and each of the seven hills

of Rome was probably a separate village at this early point.

But as the settlement or various settlements grew and began to emerge as an actual city,

it soon fell under the control of the powerful Etruscan civilization, which again was located

immediately to the north of the city.

And it’s unclear if early Rome was under Etruscan control from the very beginning of the settlement,

or if Etruscans invaded at some point as it began to grow, but we can say with some

certainty that Rome was governed by Etruscan kings by the time it emerged as an actual


The Etruscan kings united the various settlements in the seven hills into an actual unified


We’re now at about 600 BC, and we can finally think of Rome as an actual city for the first


And there’s no doubt that the Etruscans helped to develop the city of Rome.

The influence was so great during this early period that we can think of early Rome as

basically an Etruscan city.

Its leaders and its culture was essentially Etruscan.

But its inhabitants were Latin-speaking Indo-Europeans.

And this dichotomy was bound to create long-term conflicts, which it ultimately did.

The city came to be known as Romulus, which as you may recall was the name which the later-day

Romans gave to the mythical king who supposedly built the city.

So the name Romulus had been around from the beginning, and you can probably see how the

later Romans would have incorporated it into their founding myth.

Now the Etruscans not only ruled over Rome, they also heavily influenced its early culture.

In fact, we often take note of the Greek influence on Roman culture, but the Etruscan influence

is often overlooked.

In military and political matters, the Romans borrowed heavily from the Etruscans.

They imitated the clothing of the Etruscan nobility, and in fact, one of the most iconic

symbols of the Roman army is the military standard topped with a bronze eagle.

But you might not know that the Romans actually borrowed that from the Etruscans.

And if you’re a fan of Roman military history, you probably know that the Roman generals

famously wore scarlet military cloaks in battle.

And again, this idea was taken from the Etruscans.

Since we’re talking about Etruscan influence on the Romans, and since this is a podcast

about the history of English, we now have to talk about the big event which happened

next, because we live with the consequences of this event every single day.

Around 600 BC, those Latin-speaking people in the settlement that we can now officially

call the New City of Rome, borrowed one more thing from the Etruscans, and that was the


As I mentioned earlier, the Etruscans had borrowed the alphabet from the Greeks around

700 BC, so the Romans had borrowed it from the Etruscans only a century later.

And even though the Etruscans hadn’t been using the alphabet for very long, they had

made some significant changes to it in order to make it fit their non-Indo-European language.

But now the Romans were borrowing this modified alphabet from a non-Indo-European language

back into another Indo-European language, in this case Latin.

As I mentioned earlier, the alphabet is based entirely around the sounds, or phonemes, of


And when you move from one language family to another, the phonemes can change significantly.

And languages don’t always share the same sounds, so some letters become useless, and

other letters have to be invented to make the alphabet fit the new language.

And that’s exactly what those early Romans had to do when they took the alphabet from

the Etruscans.

And once the Romans were done with it, they had created an alphabet which is basically

the same alphabet which we use today in modern English.

Now let’s keep in mind that Rome was just a fledgling settlement that we can barely

call a city at this point, and it was ruled by Etruscan kings and was heavily influenced

by the neighboring Etruscan civilization which was now at its peak.

So these Latin-speaking people in and around Rome were just looking for a way to write

their own native language in this new form of writing called an alphabet.

And the Etruscans would have probably considered that very early version of Latin to be a semi-barbarian

language at the time.

But a ceramic wine container dated to around 620 BC has been found around Rome which contains

the Etruscan alphabet, but it spells words in Latin.

The inscription identifies the owner and the maker of the container.

And another inscription dating from the same time frame also contains Etruscan writing,

but again the words are Latin.

And this indicates that the Latin speakers had adopted, or were beginning to adopt, the

Etruscan alphabet by around 620 BC.

And from that date until around 250 BC, so around 350 years, historians and archaeologists

have discovered 650 inscriptions written in the early Latin alphabet.

Now in the case of the Greek and the Phoenician alphabets, we have letter lists.

In other words, we have their version of the ABCs in order from A or Aleph or Alpha to

the final letter in the alphabet.

Now if you think about it, there’s no particular reason for having all of the letters organized

in a particular order, you know, A before B and B before C and so on.

But all languages with alphabets do it.

And linguists believe that the ordering of the letters in the alphabet is simply a memory


It makes it easier to learn the letters if you can learn them all in a particular order.

And so one of the first things children do is they learn their ABCs in order.

However, out of all the early Latin inscriptions from 620 BC to 250 BC, there are no alphabet


And it’s almost certain the Romans had them, because when the lists finally do appear later,

the letters are still in basically the same order which the Greeks and the Etruscans had


But without a specific alphabet list, linguists have had to look closely at the surviving

inscriptions to determine how many letters the Romans were actually using.

And based on that research, it appears that the Romans were using 21 letters during this


And the Etruscans had stopped using the Greek letter for the O sound, so the Romans brought

that letter back.

And remember that the Etruscan language didn’t have a B sound or a D sound or a G sound.

But of course, Latin did have those sounds.

So the Romans reshuffled the forms and the sounds of the letters for those three sounds.

So as you may recall from an earlier episode, the third letter, which the Greeks had called

gamma with a G sound, now came into Latin with the Etruscan K sound, since the Etruscan

language didn’t have a G sound.

So the third letter became the Roman letter C with a K sound.

But whereas the Etruscans didn’t have a G sound, the Romans did have a G sound.

So they eventually had to create a new letter for the G sound, which became the Roman letter


And that’s why the uppercase C and the uppercase G resemble each other.

And there was also a reason why the new letter G was placed in the seventh position after

the letter F.

The seventh letter of the Etruscan alphabet had the Z or Zed sound, which the Etruscans

had borrowed from the Greeks.

But unlike Greek and Etruscan, early Latin didn’t have the Z sound or the Zed sound.

So the seventh letter, called Zay by the Etruscans, was unnecessary in Latin.

So the Romans got rid of Zay and they put that new letter G in its place.

And of course the letter Zay would reappear during the classical Roman period when the

Romans started to borrow a lot of words from Greek and they suddenly needed to represent

that Z sound again.

So at that point they reintroduced the letter as Z or Zed and put it at the end of the alphabet.

I should also note that the Romans tinkered with the letter F as well.

Up to this point, the sixth letter of the alphabet represented the W sound, wuh, in

Greek and Etruscan.

And the Romans moved this sound nearer to the back of the alphabet and that freed up

the sixth letter.

Now the Greeks and Etruscans didn’t actually have an F sound in their respective languages.

And remember from way back in an earlier episode that the Greeks had a P-F sound that was probably

a sound that was in transition from the original P sound to an F sound.

And you may remember that that was one of the sound changes which Jacob Grimm had also

noticed within the Germanic languages.

And that’s the change that distinguishes the Germanic father from the Latin pater.

And you may remember that the Greeks had invented a new letter called Phi, or they probably

called it The, to cover that in-between P-F sound.

And that was as close as the Greeks actually came to an F sound.

But the Romans did have an F sound in Latin.

And that Greek sound Phi was by this point being pronounced simply as an F, just like

we do today in words like phone and philosophy, because that sound had completed its transition

to the F sound by this point.

So the Romans had to find a way to write the F sound since the alphabet that they borrowed

from the Etruscans did not have a letter for the F sound.

So they used that sixth letter which had previously represented the W sound but was

now free.

So our modern letter F with the F sound was born.

And the Romans decided to use that letter for native Latin words.

But for those Greek words which were being borrowed into Latin, they chose to use the

PH combination to represent the original Greek letter Phi.

So that’s why we still have that PH spelling for the F sound in modern English.

It represents words that were borrowed into Latin from Greek which had that original Phi

letter to represent that in-between P-F sound.

Now these are just a few of the changes that the Romans made to the alphabet.

And the examples I just gave cover several centuries of Roman history.

So the Roman letter changes occurred over many years.

And this is a good point to mention again the alphabet series which I hope to have

available very shortly.

And that series will focus on all of these changes in much more detail.

But the basic point here is that the very early Romans borrowed the Etruscan alphabet

around 600 BC when Rome was barely a city.

And they began to modify the alphabet to make it fit Latin which was a quite different language

from the Etruscan language.

And much like the Etruscans and Greeks who preceded them, the early Romans wrote sentences

in both directions, right to left and left to right.

But over time, as I mentioned earlier, they settled on the same left to right approach

which we use today.

So now we have the emerging city-state of Rome, governed by Etruscan kings, infiltrated

with Etruscan culture, and using a modified Etruscan alphabet.

But the Romans, remember, were not Etruscans.

They were Latin-speaking Indo-Europeans.

And the power in this relationship was almost ready to change hands.

So next time, I’m going to look at the rise of Rome as an independent city-state, and

eventually as an imperial power.

And along the way, I’m going to begin looking at Latin words and phrases from this period

which are still found in modern English.

So next time, it’s all about the rise of the Roman Empire.

So until then, thanks for listening to the History of English Podcast.