“Each letter of the alphabet is a steadfast loyal soldier in a great army of words, sentences, paragraphs, and stories. One letter falls, and the entire language falters.” - Vera Nazarian
The Latin alphabet, the basis of the Latin language, was born around 6th century BC in Italy. It is known across almost all Western countries.
At the time, the writing direction was not exactly defined. Inscriptions were written from right to left on a fibula (a gold pin) while in other cases they are written from left to right, or alternating between a line from left to right and one from right to left.
At the beginning, there were nineteen letters.
The graphics were very simple and reveal a mixed Phoenician, Greek and Etruscan origin.
- How has the Latin alphabet evolved?
Superprof charts the history of the classical language from its origins to its use today. Find a dedicated Latin teacher here.
Etruscan, the Ancestor of the Latin Alphabet
The writing systems were born in different parts of the globe and at different times, whether in Mesopotamia, Egypt, China or Central America. We must remember that our alphabet comes from Canaan, in a region that today corresponds to the Middle East (Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Jordan, Sinai).
Our alphabet has a Semitic origin. Originally, Egyptian hieroglyphs were used to gradually build the alphabet that we know today. We used a consonantal pseudo-hieroglyphic alphabet. At the same time, long before the modern Latin dictionary, a cuneiform writing was born in Phoenicia. The consonants were dominant as well.
Later, the Greeks took this Phoenician alphabet and added vowels to adapt it to their language.
The Greek alphabet gave birth to the Etruscan alphabet which is where the alphabet we use today comes from. The Etruscans came a priori from Asia Minor according to Herodotus but this theory is not confirmed.
The Etruscans arrived in Tuscany around the 7th century BC and would have adopted the Greek alphabet to transcribe a language which remains a mystery to this today. Indeed, experts are still not able to understand and translate it, even though they know how to read it.
The Etruscan civilisation spread throughout Italy and little by little the Etruscan alphabet was imposed everywhere in Europe, in pace with Roman conquests. All other local languages and scriptures then disappeared. In the 3rd century BC, there were 19 letters to the alphabet. The, X, Y and Z are not adopted until later, directly inherited from Greek.
The Etruscan alphabet contained useless letters according to the phonological system of the Etruscan language. We know that the vowel "O" was not used, but found its place among the Romans.
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Latin Alphabet: The Roman Writing System
Writing at the time of the Roman Empire was reserved for recording the history of great men. Indeed, we often see epitaphs from this time inviting readers to glorify the person buried.
Thus, the democratisation of writing did not take place under the Romans and the literacy rate is estimated at only 30% of male adults. Children, boys and girls, learn to read and write from a magister, but this education is reserved for prestigious families.
There was often a religious significance to knowing how to read and write in Roman times. Indeed, it was thought that developing one's intellect could ensure a better life after death and even bestow immortality.
We found a lot of mediums where Latin and Latin declination were present: walls and slabs, often wax. Very few parchments were found, primarily because it was very difficult to get a lot of them at the time.
It is only between the 1st and the 5th century that the use of papyrus parchments started to spread, giving rise to a new form of writing: the codex. Punctuation did not exist at this time and to help speakers in their speech, breaks were simply marked by taking a new line.
Writing depends on speech. It's sole purpose is to transcribe oral language.
There were only capitals in the Latin alphabet until the Carolingian period (9th century) when writing gradually took a step away from the spoken word and lowercase letters were introduced.
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The Latin Alphabet: From Uppercase to the Arrival of Lowercase
In the context of the Roman conquest, writing spread and evolved. We are far now from the Phoenician alphabet and the Semitic language of its beginnings. There are two kinds of capital letter:
- Capitalis rustica (1st century BC), characterised by a certain freedom and a slender line,
- Capitalis quadrata (IVth century), characterised by a greater discipline and a square form.
Writing was used to transcribe poems like those of Virgil and literary stories, but it was also a way of conveying the merits of citizens on the City walls and immortalising speeches in bronze or stone.
But it is in everyday life that writing experiences its greatest evolution.
Being used for letters, diplomas, graffiti and even sales contracts, it soon became rounded, simplified and links are gradually made between the letters. The height of capital letters start to differ giving rise to the writing style called Roman cursive. Lowercase appears in the third century as a result of vulgar writing (of the people) in Latin languages.
The letters, which were originally very square, become progressively more round, especially in Christian religious texts.
It was Charlemagne who endorsed the use of lowercase letters to establish his authority when he came to power in 771. He thus began a reform of writing. All texts must now be copied in caroline miniscule. Our current form of writing stems from this standardisation.
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Some Interesting Facts About the Roman Alphabet
In the first centuries of using the Roman alphabet, inherited from the Phoenicians and a long way from the hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt, several facts are noteworthy:
- There was no distinction between the U and the V. Only the V existed as the writing was still very square at this time,
- The letter G did not exist. The consonant C expressed both the phonemes /k/ and /g/, inherited directly from Greek,
- The letter K was redundant with the letter C and was kept only in a few words and when in front of an A,
- The letter Z did not exist as it was rendered useless due to phonetic changes,
- The letter Q was a variant of the letter K, used only in front of a U.
In its archaic version, the Latin alphabet had 20 letters:
A, B, C, D, E, F, H, I, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, V, X.
Whereas in its classical writing, after the 3rd century, it had 23:
A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, V, X, Y, Z.
You will note the absence of the letters J, U and W which appear later on, as the rounding of letters and their usage develops.
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The Arrival of the Printing Press and the Modern Evolution of Our Alphabet
Since the appearance of writing in Mesopotamia and its evolution from the Arabic alphabet to ancient Greek through Hebrew and Slavic languages, the classical letters of the Latin alphabet have undergone a lot of evolution.
It was in fact the Renaissance that brought about the greatest change in writing forms with the birth of printing. Until then manuscripts were all handwritten. With the printing press, books became more widespread.
Did you know? The Bible was the first piece of work to be printed using movable type.
But after this we didn't suddenly stop writing by hand. On the contrary, several writing styles were developed:
- Gothic style: letter of civility (15th century),
- The financial (15th century),
- The round (17th century),
- The bastard (17th century),
- The casting (17th century),
- The English: from the Italian bastard, it is easier to draw and faster to write (18th century).
Until the twentieth century, it is the latter which served as a basis for writing in schools. Today, the letters are still changing. Just look at the current tags to be convinced.
Since the advent of computer science (a tool through which you can consult Latin quotations for free), it is the Latin alphabetical system that is recognised first. For each glyph corresponds to a code manipulated by the computer apparatus. From the ASCI standard to the ISO 8859, all alphabets are now manipulated by computers:
- Ancient languages such as Aramaic or Hebrew,
- Greek language, modern Greek,
- Arabic language, Turkish,
- Chinese characters,
- The Cyrillic alphabet, the Russian alphabet,
- European languages such as Germanic languages, French (with its circumflex, acute and grave accents), Spanish (with its tilde), Romanian, Croatian, etc.
Our alphabet hasn't experienced further modification after being finally set at 26 letters. It has, however, some minor variations depending on the language. For example, the Spanish alphabet contains 28 letters ("ll" and "ñ") and the circumflex accent, directly inherited from Greek, does not exist in all languages.
Now challenge your knowledge of Latin: do you know these quotes?