The History of English Podcast - Bonus Episode 2 History of the Alphabet

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Hi, everyone. Welcome to this bonus episode of the History of English podcast.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a new episode of the podcast ready this week.

I hope to have one ready next week.

But the reason I don’t have a new episode ready is because I finally committed myself to finishing that alphabet series,

which I’ve been mentioning from time to time.

And I’m happy to report that that series is finally ready.

So I wanted to take this opportunity to tell you a little bit about it.

And I’m also going to include a chapter of that series at the end of this episode.

So you will have something new if you listen all the way to the end.

First of all, just to give you a little bit of background about the series,

I decided to do a series about the history of the alphabet after I began the podcast.

A few listeners contacted me after I did the episode about the letter C early on,

and they asked if I was going to explore the history of the other letters of the alphabet.

And at the time, that wasn’t really my intention.

There’s certainly some overlap between the history of the alphabet and the history of English.

But I really intended to bring in the alphabet information in bits and pieces from time to time

when it fit in with what I was discussing in the podcast.

But I gave it some thought, and I finally decided that I was going to go ahead

and put together an extra episode or two dedicated to the alphabet.

But when I started on it, I quickly realized you can’t really do the topic justice in just a couple of episodes.

So I gave it some more thought and decided that I was going to go ahead and pursue it

kind of like I did in that early episode about the letter C.

And the net result of all of that is that now that I’m done with it,

the series clocks in at about five hours.

So there’s a lot of information in there.

The series begins with a look at the overall history of the alphabet,

from the early forms of writing in the Middle East to the early Semitic alphabet,

then the Phoenicians and Greeks and so on.

So some of that information I’ve covered in earlier episodes of this podcast,

but the material is much more focused in this series,

and it goes into some additional details that I didn’t go into in the podcast.

And then what I do is I actually explore the history of the individual letters.

And just like that episode on the letter C, the history of certain letters is closely connected to other letters.

So I’ve grouped the letters together so I can explore them in groups.

And this actually works much better than trying to go through each individual letter.

You can actually see how the various letters are interconnected by doing it that way.

The only portion of the individual letters which I’ve previously covered in the podcast is the letter C.

But even that section has been reorganized, and I’ve presented it differently.

For example, the history of the letter C is closely connected to the history of the letter Q.

Both letters represent the K sound.

Well, initially in the earlier podcast episode, the letter Q was included in the discussion,

but after I put it together, I realized that it was just too much information in that episode.

It just felt like it was way too much.

So I actually pulled out that information about the letter Q,

and so now I get to put all that information back in.

Also, in the earlier episode about the letter C, I briefly discussed the letter G.

But in this series, it allows me to explore the connections between the G and the C

and the other K-sounding letters in much more detail.

So for example, the same changes that gave us the letter C with the K sound and the S sound,

well, those changes also had a lot to do with why the letter G today has the hard G sound, g,

and the soft G sound, j.

It was part of that same assimilation process.

So anyway, now I can explore those connections as well.

So the question is, how do you get the series?

Well, I’m going to try to make it available on iTunes, but this series is not a podcast.

It’s really an audiobook.

So there’s a different process for that, and I’m not exactly sure when it’ll be up on iTunes.

And I’ll probably make it available where other audiobooks are available as well.

But for now, you can get the audiobook from my website,

And all the information is right there on the front page.

And since this series is about five hours long, I’ve actually divided it into two separate volumes on the website.

So each file is about two and a half hours long.

Now, I am electing to charge a small fee for the series.

The total cost is $6.

And if you download it from the website, each volume is $3.

So you can buy either one or both.

It’s up to you.

Again, I’m charging a small amount for the series for a couple of reasons.

First, it’s taken me quite a bit of time to put it together, so it’ll help me cover some of my time and effort in putting it together.

But also because a few listeners have contacted me from time to time and asked if they can make a donation to support the podcast.

And in lieu of taking donations, I decided to do this instead.

So even if you’re not particularly interested in the alphabet, this is a way you can support the podcast if you’d like to do that.

So, with all that out of the way, I’m going to conclude this bonus episode with an excerpt from the audiobook.

This chapter that I’m going to give you explores the history of a group of letters which have been the most consistent letters in the alphabet.

These letters still represent the same sounds, and they’re still located in the same relative position as the original alphabet.

And the names of the letters have changed, and the shapes of the letters look have changed, but otherwise they remain very consistent.

So, the history of these letters is actually very simple.

So I put them all together, and I call these the constant consonants.

So, I hope you enjoy it.

We’ll begin our look at the individual letters of the alphabet by looking at the core group of letters which have remained more or less constant since the Phoenician alphabet.

Their shapes may have changed, but the sounds they represent and their relative position in the alphabet reflects the remarkable consistency of the alphabet over 3,000 years.

Now, since the original alphabet only had consonants, all of these letters are also consonants.

Remember that the vowels were added later by the Greeks.

The constant consonants are letters B, D, L, M, N, P, R, and T.

These letters are still found in the same order as the original Phoenician alphabet.

And other than their respective shapes and their modern English names, they are direct inheritance from the Phoenicians.

So, let’s start with letter B.

Just like our modern letter B, the original letter B was the second letter of the Phoenician alphabet.

And just like today, it represented the B sound, B.

It was originally called Bayet or Beth in the Semitic alphabets.

Remember that originally, the letters were named after objects which began with the sound represented by the letter.

And the physical depiction of the letter was an actual drawing of that particular object or thing.

In the original Semitic languages, the word Bayet or Beth meant house.

So they apparently used this word as the name of the letter since Bayet or Beth began with the B sound.

And to write the letter, they used a simplified version of a house.

The original letter had more of a rectangular or block shape.

Imagine, if you will, the floor plan of a very simple rectangular house with a door at the front.

Now imagine that you open the door and it leads to a hallway down the middle.

Now you might have a shape that sort of looks like a very blocky number 8, a digital 8 if you will.

Now over time, if the two walls on the front side of that house are curved around to the front door, you start to get an uppercase B.

Now that’s a very broad generalization of the process which led from the original Semitic house, a Beth, to the modern letter B.

So now if you look at a B, you can imagine the straight line as the back wall of the house

and the point where the two curves meet on the right side as the door or entrance to the house.

By the way, we still see that original Semitic word Beth meaning house in words like Bethlehem meaning house of bread

and Bethesda meaning merciful house and Bethel meaning house of God.

Now when the Greeks borrowed the alphabet from the Phoenicians, they changed the name of the letter from Byatt or Beth to Beta.

And that little ah added to the end to create the name Beta reflects the fact that the Greeks had a lot more vowels than the Semitic languages.

And much of the change in the shape of the letter to the more curvy letter we know today also occurred during the time the Greeks used it.

Now if you look at a depiction of the Greek letter B, you may notice that it appears to be backwards.

It’s generally drawn so that it faces to the left.

In other words, the straight line is on the right and the two curves are on the left.

But that’s only because the Phoenicians and the early Greeks wrote from right to left.

So it was written so that it faced the left which was the direction of the sentence.

But by around 600 BC, the Greeks had begun to write sentences in a back and forth style so that the first line would go from right to left

and then the next line would go from left to right and then the next line would go back from right to left.

When this happened, the shapes of the letters would flip in each line so that they were always facing in the direction in which the sentence was being written.

By around 500 BC, almost all Greek writing was from left to right like our modern way of writing.

And from that point on, the B is depicted facing to the right as in our modern alphabet.

So that’s why our modern letters which are written from left to right are often mirror images of the original Phoenician and Greek letters which were originally written in the opposite direction.

As I noted in an earlier chapter, the Greek word beta was added to the first letter alpha to create the word alphabet.

And this is the same thing we do today when we say the ABCs to refer to all of the letters, not just A, B, and C.

So alpha and beta was just a short way of referring to all of the letters.

Now the Greek letter beta bypassed the Etruscans for the most part.

The Etruscans didn’t have a B sound in their language.

That was one of those sounds that linguists call voiced stops.

And the Etruscans didn’t use those sounds.

But the Romans did have a B sound.

So they brought it back when they adopted the alphabet from the Etruscans.

The Romans were aware of the Greek version of the alphabet.

So in certain cases they went back and borrowed aspects of the Greek alphabet which were needed to fill in gaps where the phonemes differed from the Etruscan phonemes.

As you may recall, Latin and Greek are related languages within the Indo-European family of languages, which also includes English, by the way.

So that meant that Latin and Greek tended to have a lot of the same sounds or phonemes.

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

In fact, its origins are still unknown.

So it had sounds that were quite different from the Greek and the Latin sounds.

So that meant the alphabet underwent some changes as it passed through the Etruscan language before it got to the Romans.

And it also meant that the Romans had to make certain adjustments to make the alphabet fit their language.

So they tended to use the existing Greek alphabet for those adjustments.

And the letter B is one example of that.

Now the Romans called the letter Be, which was a shortened version of the Greek word Beta.

And this pronunciation passed from Latin to French, where it’s still the same basic pronunciation for the letter.

It then passed with the Norman French into English after 1066, still called Be.

But around 1500, the pronunciation of the vowels in England started to change.

And the A sound generally shifted to the E sound.

So Be became B.

And the lowercase version of the letter developed during the 5th century by scribes who created a shortened version that was a little bit quicker to write.

They basically dropped the upper curve of the loop.

And again, this was just a quicker way for scribes to write the letter using ink.

The next constant consonant is the letter D.

Again, just like the letter B, it’s retained its position in the alphabet since the original Semitic alphabet.

It’s always been the fourth letter.

It was originally called Daleth by the Phoenicians.

And Daleth meant door in the Phoenician language.

The original Semitic letter resembled a triangle shape with rounded lines.

Imagine two lines forming a right angle or a 90 degree angle.

If those lines are connected with a slightly rounded line instead of a straight line, you have some idea of what the original letter looked like.

We might expect that they would have used a square or a rectangle to depict a door, but they didn’t.

And scholars are still not exactly sure why they used this more triangular shape.

But when the Greeks borrowed it, they changed the name from Daleth to Delta.

And they straightened out the lines so that the letter was actually more of a proper triangle in Greek.

And that’s how we see it depicted today in fraternity and sorority names.

Now, as writing developed from chisels and stone to ink and parchment, the shape became less rigid and more curvy.

The later Greeks kept a straight line as the backbone of the letter, but they started to convert the other two lines into a single curved line.

And this curved half-moon D shape passed to the Etruscans and eventually to the Romans.

Again, the Etruscans didn’t have a D sound in their language.

That was another one of those sounds which linguists call voiced stop, which the Etruscans didn’t use.

So the Romans brought it back when they adopted the alphabet because they did have that D sound.

Now, even though the Etruscans didn’t really use the letters B and D, their alphabet list, in other words, their ABCs, often included the letters on the list.

And that reflects the fact that it was a borrowed alphabet.

But even though those letters were on the list, they just weren’t used by the Etruscans in actual writing.

Now, the Romans called the letter Day.

And again, it passed into French where it’s still pronounced Day in modern French.

But that same English vowel shift, which I mentioned earlier, changed the pronunciation to D in English.

The next three constant consonants have always been placed together in the alphabet.

And in fact, these letters are so closely associated with each other that when children pronounce their ABCs,

these three letters and the letter O are often merged together into a new made-up letter, the letter Alamino.

Of course, I’m talking about the letters L, M, and N.

The letter L was the 12th letter of the Phoenician alphabet, just like our modern letter L.

The Phoenician letter was called Lamed, and it was shaped like a backwards checkmark.

The name basically meant cattle prod or any type of stick used for prodding livestock.

The checkmark shape reflected the shape of the stick or the prod.

And the Greeks borrowed the letter and called it Lambda.

The Greeks also used the letter so that it faced the direction in which the sentence was being written.

So it resembled a modern checkmark in right-to-left writing, but a reversed checkmark in left-to-right writing like we use today.

The letter then passed through Etruscan and then into Latin.

The Romans eventually flattened that checkmark shape into the right-angled L shape that we have today.

The next letter, M, still occupies the same position today that it did back in the original Phoenician alphabet.

It’s always followed L and preceded N as the 13th letter.

It began as a Semitic letter called Mem, and Mem meant water in the original Semitic languages.

The letter was written as a vertical, wavy, or zigzag line, and it represented waves in water.

And as I said, the Phoenicians took the letter Mem as the 13th letter.

During the time the Phoenicians were using the letter, they began to shift the letter from a vertical wavy line to a horizontal wavy line with a long vertical stem on one end.

And the Greeks took the letter as Mu and shortened that long stem, leaving a mostly horizontal letter.

And the Etruscans and Romans took the same letter.

The Romans eventually eliminated that stem on the end, leaving us with the modern letter M.

Now, just like the prior letters, our modern letter N still occupies the 14th position in the alphabet, a position that it’s held since the time the Phoenicians used it.

The original Semitic letter resembled a snake.

Now, the Semitic language had a word, Nahash, which meant snake, and it’s believed that this was likely the original name of the letter.

However, by the time of the later Phoenician version of the Semitic alphabet, the letter was called Nun, meaning fish.

So, why did a symbol which originally meant snake, with a name meaning snake, eventually come to mean fish, with a name meaning fish?

Well, keep in mind that both words, Nahash and Nun, started with the N sound.

So, either word would work to represent the N sound in keeping with the Semitic tradition of using objects with a name that began with the sound of the letter.

But why the shift from one object to another, in this case from a snake to a fish?

Well, many modern scholars think that the shift occurred at some point to connect the letter N with the water letter M which preceded it.

Since M was named Mem for water, N was named Nun for fish.

Now, this is one theory, and it should be noted that there are some scholars who think that the letter always meant fish.

But the original shape of the letter suggests a snake, not a fish.

In either case, the letter eventually passed to the Greeks, and the Greeks began to sharpen the curves in the snake-like shape to a more angular shape.

And this again may have been an intentional effort to mimic the shape of the preceding letter M.

The letter then passed into Etruscan, and later into Latin, where the modern N shape finally was adopted.

And if you look at it, an uppercase N still resembles a snake, only it has the sharp angular lines which you get with chisels and stone.

It’s also notable that whereas some letters like B and D have become more rounded and curvy over time,

other letters like M and N have actually become more straight and more angular.

This reflects an earlier period when letters were often written in stone with chisels.

But we do see the more curvy versions of M and N in the lowercase versions of the letters,

which were developed after the Romans when ink writing had become more standard.

Now remember that the original Semitic alphabet didn’t have vowels, and that included the Phoenician version of the alphabet as well.

So there was no letter O originally.

Therefore, after the letter N was the letter P.

The original Semitic letter was Pe.

The word meant mouth, and was shaped like a modern letter U or V, which represented a smiling mouth.

Over time, the shape of the letter changed radically, from an original V shape to a cane shape with a hook at the top during the Phoenician period.

And later, during the Roman period, the hook shape closed at the top to form the modern letter P.

So the modern letter P no longer resembles the original version of the letter at all.

So why did the shape of the letter change to its current form?

Well, one theory is that the shape evolved to resemble the letter B.

And in fact, the modern letter P is essentially a modern letter B without the bottom curve portion.

And that’s probably not a coincidence.

The B sound, ba, and the P sound, pa, are closely related sounds.

Linguists would say that the B sound is the voiced version, and the P sound is the unvoiced version.

And even in ancient times, these two sounds were associated with each other.

So this change in shape of the letter P to resemble a letter B may have been a memory device.

The P sound was basically an unvoiced B sound.

So to associate this letter with that B sound, the letter P eventually began to resemble the letter B in many respects.

By the way, as the shape of the letter evolved into its current form within the Etruscan and Roman alphabets,

it also continued to evolve back in Greece within the Greek alphabet.

The Greek letter ultimately took the shape of the symbol we know today as pi in geometry.

And that actually is the Greek version of the letter P.

Now, I mentioned that the letter P bears a certain resemblance to the letter B.

And I noted that that resemblance may not be entirely coincidental.

But there’s another letter that resembled the letter P, and that’s the letter R, our next consonant.

And again, the resemblance between P and R is not coincidental.

Letter R, representing the r sound, began with the original Semitic letter called resh.

Resh meant head in the Semitic language.

And to represent this letter, they used an Egyptian hieroglyph of a profile of a man’s head.

So think of a modern letter R.

If you delete the diagonal leg of the letter, you’re left with a P shape.

And that P shape resembles the profile of a man’s head.

The letter had evolved from the Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol into this P shape by the time the Phoenicians were using it.

And the Phoenicians also called the letter resh.

The Greeks took the same letter and called it rho.

The Greeks continued to use that P shape for the letter rho.

But let’s think back for a minute to the letter P.

Remember that P had started off as more of a V-shaped letter.

But by the time the Romans were using it, it had evolved into the modern P shape that we know today,

perhaps to reflect that similarity in sound with the letter B.

So the Romans had the P-shaped letter P.

But they also had this letter for the R sound, which the Greeks called rho.

And it had basically the same shape as P now, since it was derived from the profile of a man’s head.

So that meant the Romans needed to distinguish those two letters.

And in order to do that, the Romans added the little extra diagonal leg to the letter we know today as letter R.

And they did it to distinguish it in shape from the letter P.

Now, our last constant consonant is the letter T.

T was the last letter of the Phoenician alphabet.

And just as today, it represented the T sound, t.

It was called ta, and it meant mark, as in a branding mark on animals.

The original letter ta resembled a modern lowercase t with intersecting lines.

And again, you can imagine how this might have been used as a branding symbol during the time of the Phoenicians.

Now, the Greeks took the letter as tau.

And the Greeks had also added the letter u and later some other letters to the end of the alphabet.

So t was no longer the last letter in the Greek alphabet.

The Greeks also tended to eliminate the intersecting lines, thereby creating the modern uppercase T shape.

The T then passed to the Etruscans and then to the Romans.

Around 1200 AD, the modern lowercase t emerged from a writing style in northern Europe called black letter writing.

And for the first time since the Phoenicians, the T finally had a crisscross shape again,

though these scribes didn’t have any knowledge of that original T shape used by the Phoenicians.

So there we have it, nine letters, over one third of the modern alphabet.

And they can all be traced back to the original Phoenicians.

The names have changed and many of their shapes have changed,

but the relative position of these letters in the alphabet and the sounds which they represent

are still the same today as they were over 3000 years ago.