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Roommates 2.0 #1


Hi there, Bear! And anyone else. Welcome to my first installment of Roommates 2.0, where I leave my partner and once-roommate Bear biweekly deep dives into whatever topic strikes my fancy. I’m really autistic at the best of times, and these — the first weeks of the yawning chasm known as "the rest of my life" following my college graduation — are... well, not the worst of times, but kinda the weirdest. Got a lot of potential energy, and not a lot of motivation... So I hope I get this down on a page in a reasonable manner!

Anyway, for this inaugural outing, I’d like to present to you nothing less than A COMPLETE HISTORY OF THE FIRST EIGHT LETTERS IN THE MODERN ISO BASIC LATIN ALPHABET — starting with "A" and ending with "H." There are a million intermediate steps in this chain, and I could provide images for every glyph I mention, but linking all that stuff is Too Much Work™. So, you’re gonna have to settle for hearing me paraphrase the contents of some Wikipedia pages at you instead. I’d say I hope that’s okay, but that’s basically what I do anyway! So! Here we go!!


Okay, so this is a really weird and strong one right off the bat. Take the letter "A," then flip it upside down like this: "Ɐ." If you interpret this as a pure ideogram and strip it of centuries (millennia?) of inherited context, what does it, like, kinda look like? Any guesses? You can sit here and think about it for a while if you want, go on. If you keep reading I’ll assume you don’t care for this game and just want to hear the facts, which, yeah, I get it.

So, the earliest version of the letter "A" is the Phoenician glyph 𐤀, or "aleph." It persists in a million other places, like the Hebrew "aleph" (א), the Arabic "aliph" (ا), and the Greek "A" ("alpha," which is "aleph" if you twist it around a little). Back then it represented a glottal stop, because Phoenicians only used consonantal letters. But even before that, in the Proto-Sinaitic and Egyptian scripts, it was... an ox head!! Obviously the hieroglyphs were pretty detailed images, but by the Proto-Sinaitic era, it became this triangular, almost trapezoidal head with two little lines for the horns. Abstract it just a bit more... and you get that 𐤀 from before!

Even the modern "Ɐ" reminds me of that shape, hence my question from earlier. Oh, and the name "aleph" is itself taken from the Semitic word for "ox!" (In the Bible, the word is written as אֶלֶף, or "eleph." Maybe that's where we got "elephant" from...? But probably not.)


I'm scratching my head over here trying to make sense of the history of "B." Seems like there's a lot of moving parts... I'll really have to work backwards here. The Roman "B" obviously came from the Greek "beta," which was itself adapted from the Phoenician letter "bet" (𐤁). When we get to Egyptian, things get tricky. The hieroglyph for the consonant which "B" came to encompass looked like a lower leg with a foot, but this *isn't* what the Phoenician letter came from! That one was adapted from the hieroglyph "Pr" (the same one in the word "pharaoh" and many others), meaning "house."

"Pr" looks an awful lot like a floor plan for a single room with a spot open on the bottom for a door. It was then turned into a Proto-Sinaitic glyph that looked like a... rectangle whose top line doesn't match the upper left corner, and gets in slightly. If you flip that shape 90 degrees counter clockwise, you get something that looks an awful lot like 𐤁! What I assume happened from there is that the top of the "bet" got doubled, or looped in on itself or something, to form the Greek beta and Etruscan "b" (𐌁). I kept seeing this, and other glyphs, written in reverse in Etruscan, which was confusing the hell out of me until I learned that Etruscan inscriptions were basically all written right-to-left, and so we reverse them when interpreting them in left-to-right. Anyway.

One more fun fact. In the Byzantine era, the Greek "B" took on the sound we now associated with "V". That's why, in the Cyrillic script, "B" sounds like "V!" To denote the actual "b" sound, they developed a separate letter, "Б". I could spend a whole other essay on Cyrillic to be honest. I love its symbols. So fucking cool.


Now this is an even trickier one. I'm pretty sure the YouTuber jan Misali made a video entirely on the history of "C," so that's how you know it's fucked. To illustrate this point, you might expect "C" to be intertwined with "S" or "K," since those are the sounds that "C" encompasses — but it actually shares a common ancestor with "G!" On some level this makes sense, since the first three letters of the alphabets of yore were aleph/alpha, bet/beta, and gimel/gamma. But on another... huh??

Well, some say it came from a hieroglyph for a staff sling (basically a long line with an upturned tip), and that this is what "gimel" means. Another says it came from a hieroglyph for a camel, which is "gamal" in Semitic. I don't know how you could get a mere line from a camel though; if anything, camels are a "B" animal, right? Two humps!

Anyway, by Phoenician times this glyph became "giml" (𐤂), and for the Greek, the symbol got reversed into the classic gamma (Γ). Of course, back then this symbol was used for the hard "g" sound. But then there came a problem. Wikipedia says, "In the Etruscans language, plosive consonants had no contrastive voicing, so the Gamma was adopted into the Etruscan alphabet to represent the sound /k/." What the fuck does this mean? I almost gave up here! But then I did a little digging, and I'm no linguist, but I think I get it.

So, plosives are consonants made by blocking your vocal tract to make the requisite sound. The sounds made with the tip of your tongue (the dental plosives) are for "t" and "d", the sounds made with your lips (the bilabial plosives) are "p" and "b", there's the aforementioned glottal stop, and then the sounds made by the body of the tongue (the velar plosives) — "k" and "g." Notice that each plosive has two sounds — that's contrastive voicing! Since the Etruscan language lacked this, its only dental plosive was "t," its only bilabial plosive was "p," and its only velar plosive was "k."

Simply put, this means that the Etruscans used one symbol for both "k" and "g," and with not much to choose from in the way of symbols, they went with the one for "g" — Γ. Thus, the gamma mutated with time, its top drooping farther down and becoming more segmented, until it looked like one line bent at the half like a 90 degree angle (𐌂). I think it started out a bit more angular than this, but the point of the matter is that by the advent of Latin, we had our very own "C."

There's a whole other discussion to be had about how "C" came to be used for the "s" sound too, but that is, thankfully, beyond the scope of this essay. God. "Essay." I mean, what else would you call it, right?


Thankfully, this one's far simpler... but also a little weird. "D" started out as the Greek "delta," or Δ — what you and I now know as Bill Cipher. Before that, it was the Phoenician "dalt" (𐤃), or "dalet" in Hebrew. You can see how that weird, almost "a" like shape got turned into a triangle by the Greek time, but where did this come from? Well, in the Proto-Sinaitic script, its corresponding glyph was "probably" called "dalt" too, where it represented a door (in Hebrew, this persists; "door" is "delet.") Go back to hieroglyphics, and you'll see a simple flat rectangular shape for a door. Sure. Why not.

So, yeah. Simple, but confusing. How did a door become a weird triangle thing? Well, it also may have developed from symbols for various fishes. There are apparently "many different hieroglyphs that might have inspired this," so good luck figuring that out. Also, how did the triangle become a rounded shape? The Etruscans still retained the letter, where it looks like our classic "D" but reversed... My best guess is that, in Western Greek, it looks like the "delta" wasn't an equilateral triangle but may have pointed to the right a little bit. Maybe through the generations it got mutated by various Italian scripts into "D?"


If it ain't broke, don't fix it. That's what's going on with "E." It traces back immediately to the Greek letter "epsilon" with the exact same shape (E), and this glyph goes back to the Phoenician "he," with a remarkably similar shape that just happens to be reversed (𐤄). Oh, and to make things even easier, the Etruscans used basically the same thing too (𐌄). Yep. Pretty much everyone felt like this "ee" sound looked like an "E." It even gave rise to a million Cyrillic glyphs — Е, Ё, Є, Э, and Ҩ.

But what about "he"? Where did it come from? Well, things get a little shady there. In Proto-Semitic, there were three different sounds that we would all lump together as the voiceless fricative (the "h") sound, and those had three different symbols. These were "hayt" (a piece of thread), "hillul" (a jubilant person), and "hasir" (a 'court;' basically a rectangle in a rectangle"). Of these, "hillul" is the most likely candidate for our "he." Its outstretched arms, when simplified, become a stick figure with arms at 90 degree angles. Tilt that on its side and ditch the legs, and you've got yourself the makings of a backwards "E."

Arguably more impressive than the origins of "E" are just how many descendants it spawned. Take the "schwa," Ə, an additional letter used in many languages, including a recent adoption in Italian to create gender-neutral suffixes! Take the estimated sign, ℮, used in the EU to indicate that the contents of a packaged Thing are the size they're supposed to be. And take the ampersand, &, a ligature of the word "et," Latin for "and." Nature is beautiful.


I've got a bit of a special attachment to this letter, and its lineage is probably weirder, and definitely longer, than you'd expect. In Old Italic the closest glyph to it looks like this (𐌅), and its Etruscan ancestor is the same thing but flipped. Yet the sound it corresponds to isn't a "f," but a "v!" That comes from a similar section of the mouth, yeah, but it's at the opposite end of our current alphabet! So what happened?

Well, the true origin of "F" is the Phoenician letter "waw" (𐤅), known as "vav" in Hebrew. This single glyph is one of the most important sources for our modern alphabet, giving rise to several other letters that I'm pretty sure you can guess, seeing as it represents both the "w" and "v" sound. This glyph's origin, a line with a circle on top, stems from a hieroglyph for the word "mace," transliterated as "hedj." I guess that kinda sounds like "F" if you squint? Anyway, "waw" was adopted by the Greeks and turned into the vowel "upsilon" (Y), a quick and dirty alteration of 𐤅's shape. It corresponds to what seems like multiple "u"-adjacent sounds, but no "w" sound. So, the Greeks created another glyph out of "waw" to serve as a consonant — "wau," or, as it became known, the "digamma" (F).

(Why "digamma?" Well, if you allow me a digamma digression... it looks like a gamma with another line. So, "two gammas." Funnily enough, this means that the Greeks had their own linguistic version of "W". Like, that means "two 'u's." We both had double letters! Oh, and though digamma fell out of use in most contexts, it's still used today as the Greek numeral for six. Since gamma is three, that again makes it two gammas!)

The Etruscans, as was mentioned, kept digamma (for the most part (𐌅)) and used it for "v" and "w," as was intended. However, the Greeks had no symbol for the "f" sound — its closest equivalent was "phi" (Φ), which at the time was not the "f" sound we use it for, but was instead used for the aspirated "p" sound (/pʰ/).

(So what is that? Well, if you allow me bilabial bigression, an aspiration is a burst of breath that accompanies the release of a sound or syllable. In English, aspirated consonants are usually just allophones, meaning that they're just another way to pronounce a phoneme or syllable. But in other languages, they're considered distinct enough to result in different words. For an English example, take "spin" and "pin." Since the "p" in "spin" is the second letter, it's a regular "p" sound. But if you say "pin," note that the "p" sounds a lot more forceful! That's because it's the first letter in the word, and thus it becomes an aspirated consonant.)

Anyway, to get things back on track, the point is that the Greeks had no "f." So, the Etruscans formed a digraph, a pair of characters that denote one phoneme, for the "f" sound (FH). They may have also used the symbol "8" for that sound, as taken from the extinct Sabellian languages (other languages used in Italy; not that important). And once the Romans got ahold of the alphabet for Latin (another language used in Italy; very important), they made some changes. They altered the upsilon into a new form (V), and used it for not only "u" sounds, but also "w" sounds! This meant they had a spot free for the "f" sound... And so, harkening right back to the digamma of old, they chose "F."

Oh, and the lowercase "f" has absolutely nothing to do with the "long s" (ſ) that you might have seen in old manuscripts. That one was derived from an old Roman way of writing a medial "s" in cursive. ("Medial" because it's used for letters in the middle of words.) Of course, that glyph has long since died out, which means we can, at long last, press "ſ" to pay respects. I mean "f." Fuck.


Okay, so I guess we kind of already covered this one? The earliest ancestor of "G" was the staff hieroglyph, which became "giml," which became "gamma," which became the Etruscan "C-thing" (𐌂). That's all well and good. But now, we get into Latin. So, Latin used "𐌂" (which it basically turned into "C") to represent two phonemes — the "k" sound and the "g" sound. This worked out because Latin didn't really differentiate between them, and even now they sometimes cross: take, for example, "example," which sometimes comes out as egzample. Try it!

However, as time went on, the distinction started becoming necessary. Even though the sounds come from the same part of the mouth, they're still pretty different, and lead to words with different meanings! It proved to be a huge stumbling block for younger readers and writers, especially since the letter "K" had pretty much fallen by the wayside in favor of, yet again, "C." That is, until the Roman schoolteacher Spurius Carvilius Ruga came up with an idea. What if he just added a stroke in the middle of the symbol to let his students know when to use the "g" sound? Thus, the letter "G" was born.

Honestly, I'm shocked that the historical record can pinpoint to a specific exact person who invented a letter. That's, like, as monumental an accomplishment as discovering a planet or something. Some sources claim a Roman official, Appius Claudius, invented "G," but many accomplishments were retroactively attributed to him just because he happened to improve Roman infrastructure. A lot of the writers of the day felt the achievement was Ruga's, and because of that, so will I. Also Ruga was the first Roman to ever divorce his wife, so, there's that.


Okay, here's another fun one. Take the letter "H" and then put a bunch of "H"s all next to each other. Better yet, imagine there's no spaces in between them, so the end of one "H" just seamlessly blends into the beginning of the next. Kinda like this: |-|-|-|-|-|-|-|. Remind you of anything? I won't drag it out, but, like, it's a fence! And that seems to be the corresponding Egyptian hieroglyph: a fence. This got turned into the Phoenician "heth" (𐤇), which got simplified further in Hebrew to "het" (ח). From there, it became the Greek letter "eta" (H). ...But it also became a secret second thing.

While eta started out representing the "h" sound, it gradually, eventually, became a vowel — first, the "e" in "bed" ("eh"), and eventually the "ea" in "neat" ("i"). But some dialects still used the "h" sound, and so, H was used for that too. That glyph evolved too, in a bunch of different ways: a square eight like the original "heth" (日), a literal square, a square with a cross in it, and H shapes with two bars (either horizontal or diagonal). This letter became known as "heta," and in its final incarnation, it looked like... half of an "h" (Ⱶ).

Either way, though, an aitch is an aitch. You can't say it's only half.

And that's all the time I've got for now! Maybe I'll talk about even more letters in a future letter! For now, I hope you've enjoyed these excruciating looks at our favorite Latin friends.

See you soon!

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Hi. This is the first post on my very first blog. Like I said on my About page, it feels a little weird to only be engaging in this in the year of our lord 2024, where personal blogging has become this sacred rite to be reclaimed instead of the Thing™ that everyone is actively doing.