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History of the Latin alphabet: Wikis


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The Duenos inscription, dated to the 6th century BC, shows the earliest known forms of the Old Latin alphabet.

The Latin alphabet originated in the 7th century BC, undergoing a history of 2,500 years before emerging as one of the dominant writing systems in use today.



It is generally held that the Latins adopted the western variant of the Greek alphabet in the 7th century BC from Cumae, a Greek colony in southern Italy, making the early Latin alphabet one among several Old Italic alphabets emerging at the time. From the Cumae alphabet, the Etruscan alphabet was derived and the Latins finally adopted 21 of the original 26 Etruscan letters.

The original Latin alphabet was:

  • C stood for /ɡ/
  • I stood for both /i/ and /j/.
  • V stood for both /u/ and /w/.

Legendary account in Hyginus

Gaius Julius Hyginus, who recorded much Roman mythology, mentions in Fab. 277 the legend that it was Carmenta, the Cimmerian Sibyl. who altered fifteen letters of the Greek alphabet to become the Latin alphabet, which her son Evander introduced into Latium, supposedly 60 years before the Trojan War, but there is no historically sound basis to this tale.

"The Parcae, Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos invented seven Greek letters - A B H T I Y. Others say that Mercury invented them from the flight of cranes, which, when they fly, form letters. Palamedes, too, son of Nauplius, invented eleven letters; Simonides, too, invented four letters – Ó E Z PH; Epicharmus of Sicily, two - P and PS. The Greek letters Mercury is said to have brought to Egypt, and from Egypt Cadmus took them to Greece. Cadmus in exile from Arcadia, took them to Italy, and his mother Carmenta changed them to Latin to the number of 15. Apollo on the lyre added the rest."[1]

Old Latin period

See also Old Latin

K was marginalized in favour of C, which now stood for both /ɡ/ and /k/. Probably during the 3rd century BC, the Z was dropped and a new letter G was placed in its position, according to Plutarch, by Spurius Carvilius Ruga, so that now C = /k/, G = /ɡ/.


Classical Latin period

An attempt by the emperor Claudius to introduce three additional letters was short-lived, but after the conquest of Greece in the first century BC the letters Y and Z were, respectively, adopted and readopted from the Greek alphabet and placed at the end. Now the new Latin alphabet contained 23[2] letters:

Letter A B C D E F G H I K L M
Name ā ē ef ī el em
Pronunciation (IPA) /aː/ /beː/ /keː/ /deː/ /eː/ /ef/ /ɡeː/ /haː/ /iː/ /kaː/ /el/ /em/
Letter N O P Q R S T V X Y Z
Name en ō er es ū ex ī Graeca zēta
Pronunciation (IPA) /en/ /oː/ /peː/ /kʷuː/ /er/ /es/ /teː/ /uː/ /eks/ /iː ˈgraika/ /ˈzeːta/

Notice the absence of some letters like j. The Romans used i in place of j. For example, an English sentence that features j like "Justice will bring about peace," would be rendered in Latin as "Erit opus iustitiae pax."[3]

The Latin names of some of the letters are disputed. In general, however, the Romans did not use the traditional (Semitic-derived) names as in Greek: the names of the stop consonant letters were formed by adding /eː/ to the sound (except for C, K, and Q which needed different vowels to distinguish them) and the names of the continuants consisted either of the bare sound, or the sound preceded by /e/. The letter Y when introduced was probably called hy /hyː/ as in Greek (the name upsilon being not yet in use) but was changed to i Graeca ("Greek i") as Latin speakers had difficulty distinguishing /i/ and /y/ . Z was given its Greek name, zeta. For the Latin sounds represented by the various letters see Latin spelling and pronunciation; for the names of the letters in English see English alphabet.

Roman cursive script, also called majuscule cursive and capitalis cursive, was the everyday form of handwriting used for writing letters, by merchants writing business accounts, by schoolchildren learning the Roman alphabet, and even emperors issuing commands. A more formal style of writing was based on Roman square capitals, but cursive was used for quicker, informal writing. It was most commonly used from about the 1st century BC to the 3rd century, but it probably existed earlier than that.

See also: Rustic capitals, Roman square capitals

Late Antiquity

The Latin alphabet spread from Italy, along with the Latin language, to the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea with the expansion of the Roman Empire. The eastern half of the Roman Empire, including Greece, Asia Minor, the Levant, and Egypt, continued to use Greek as a lingua franca, but Latin was widely spoken in the western half of the Empire, and as the western Romance languages, including French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and Catalan, evolved out of Latin they continued to use and adapt the Latin alphabet.

See also: Visigothic script, Roman cursive

Middle Ages

W came in use as a separate letter around 1300 AD.

The lower case (minuscule) letters developed in the Middle Ages from New Roman Cursive writing, first as the uncial script, and later as minuscule script. The old Roman letters were retained for formal inscriptions and for emphasis in written documents. The languages that use the Latin alphabet generally use capital letters to begin paragraphs and sentences and for proper nouns. The rules for capitalization have changed over time, and different languages have varied in their rules for capitalization. Old English, for example, was rarely written with even proper nouns capitalised; whereas Modern English of the 18th century had frequently all nouns capitalised, in the same way that Modern German is today, e.g. "All the Sisters of the old Town had seen the Birds".

With the spread of Western Christianity the Latin alphabet spread to the peoples of northern Europe who spoke Germanic languages, displacing their earlier Runic alphabets, as well as to the speakers of Baltic languages, such as Lithuanian and Latvian, and several (non-Indo-European) Finno-Ugric languages, most notably Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian. During the Middle Ages the Latin alphabet also came into use among the peoples speaking West Slavic languages, including the ancestors of modern Poles, Czechs, Croats, Slovenes, and Slovaks, as these peoples adopted Roman Catholicism; the speakers of East Slavic languages generally adopted both Orthodox Christianity and the Cyrillic alphabet.

As late as 1492, the Latin alphabet was limited primarily to the languages spoken in western, northern and central Europe. The Orthodox Christian Slavs of eastern and southeastern Europe mostly used the Cyrillic alphabet, and the Greek alphabet was still in use by Greek-speakers around the eastern Mediterranean. The Arabic alphabet was widespread within Islam, both among Arabs and non-Arab nations like the Iranians, Indonesians, Malays, and Turkic peoples. Most of the rest of Asia used a variety of Brahmic alphabets or the Chinese script.

See also: Carolingian minuscule, Insular script, Uncial, Scribal abbreviation

Early Modern period

J was differentiated from I in the 16th century. U was differentiated from V occasionally, but this separation only became standard after the 18th century.

With the spread of printing, Latin typography emerged, with fonts based on various minuscules of the Middle Ages.

See also: Blackletter

Modern period

Latin alphabet world distribution. The dark green areas shows the countries where this alphabet is the sole main script. The light green shows the countries where the alphabet co-exists with other scripts.

By the 18th century, the standard Latin alphabet comprised the 26 letters we are familiar with today.

During colonialism, the alphabet began its spread around the world, being employed for previously unwritten languages, notably in the wake of Christianization, being used in Bible translations. It spread to the Americas, Australia, and parts of Asia, Africa, and the Pacific, along with the Spanish, Portuguese, English, French, and Dutch languages.

In the late eighteenth century, the Romanians adopted the Latin alphabet; although Romanian is a Romance language, the Romanians were predominantly Orthodox Christians, and until the nineteenth century the Church used the Romanian Cyrillic alphabet. Vietnam, under French rule, adapted the Latin alphabet for use with the Vietnamese language, which had previously used Chinese characters. The Latin alphabet is also used for many Austronesian languages, including Tagalog and the other languages of the Philippines, and the official Malaysian and Indonesian languages, replacing earlier Arabic and indigenous Brahmic alphabets.

In 1928, as part of Kemal Atatürk's reforms, Turkey adopted the Latin alphabet for the Turkish language, replacing the Arabic alphabet. Most of Turkic-speaking peoples of the former USSR, including Tatars, Bashkirs, Azeri, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and others, used the Uniform Turkic alphabet in the 1930s. In the 1940s all those alphabets were replaced by Cyrillic. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, several of the newly-independent Turkic-speaking republics adopted the Latin alphabet, replacing Cyrillic. Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan have officially adopted the Latin alphabet for Azeri, Uzbek, and Turkmen, respectively. In the 1970s, the People's Republic of China developed an official transliteration of Mandarin Chinese into the Latin alphabet, called Pinyin which is used to aid children and foreigers in learning the pronunciation of Chinese characters. Aside from that, Chinese characters are used for reading and writing.

West Slavic and most South Slavic languages use the Latin alphabet rather than the Cyrillic, a reflection of the dominant religion practiced among those peoples. Among these, Polish uses a variety of diacritics and digraphs to represent special phonetic values, as well as the l with stroke - ł - for a sound similar to w. Czech uses diacritics as in Dvořák — the term háček ("little hook") is Czech. Croatian and the Latin version of Serbian use carons in č, š, ž, an acute in ć and a bar in đ. The languages of Eastern Orthodox Slavs generally use Cyrillic instead which is much closer to the Greek alphabet. The Serbian language uses two alphabets.

See also


The Basic modern Latin alphabet
Aa Bb Cc Dd Ee Ff Gg Hh Ii Jj Kk Ll Mm Nn Oo Pp Qq Rr Ss Tt Uu Vv Ww Xx Yy Zz

history palaeography derivations diacritics punctuation numerals Unicode list of letters ISO/IEC 646


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