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A Specimen of typeset fonts and languages, by William Caslon, letter founder; from the 1728 Cyclopaedia.
Ancient Greek letters on a vase

A letter is an element in an alphabetic system of writing, such as the Greek alphabet and its descendants. Each letter in the written language is usually associated with one phoneme (sound) in the spoken form of the language.

Written signs in other writing systems are best called syllabograms (which denote a syllable) or logograms (which denote a word or phrase).


Overview and usage

As symbols that denote segmental speech, letters are associated with phonetics. In a purely phonemic alphabet, a single phoneme is denoted by a single letter, but in history and practice letters often denote more than one phoneme. A pair of letters designating a single phoneme is called a digraph. Examples of digraphs in English include "ch", "sh" and "th". A phoneme can also be represented by three letters, called a trigraph. An example is the combination "sch" in German.

A letter may also be associated with more than one phoneme, with the phoneme depending on the surrounding letters or etymology of the word. As an example of positional effects, the Spanish letter c is pronounced [k] before a, o, or u (e.g. cantar, corto, cuidado, Colorado, catalac), but is pronounced [s] before e or i (e.g. centimo, ciudad).

Letters also have specific names associated with them. These names may differ with language, dialect and history. Z, for example, is usually called zed in all English-speaking countries except the U.S., where it is named zee.

Letters, as elements of alphabets, have prescribed orders. This may generally be known as "alphabetical order" though collation is the science devoted to the complex task of ordering and sorting of letters and words in different languages. In Spanish, for instance, ñ is a separate letter being sorted after n. In English, n and ñ are sorted alike.

Letters may also have numerical value. This is true of Roman numerals and the letters of other writing systems. In English, Arabic numerals are typically used instead of letters.

People and objects are sometimes named after letters, for one of these reasons:

  1. The letter is an abbreviation, e.g. "G-man" as slang for a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent, arose as short for "Government Man".
  2. Alphabetical order used as a counting system, e.g. Plan A, Plan B, etc; alpha ray, beta ray, gamma ray, delta ray, epsilon ray
  3. The shape of the letter, e.g. O-ring, D-ring, G-clamp, F-clamp, a river delta, H-block, H engine, U engine, V engine, R-clip
  4. Other reasons, e.g. X-ray after "x the unknown" in algebra, because the discoverer did not know what they were.


The invention of letters was preceded by the West Semitic script, which appeared in Canaan around 1000 BC. Antecedents are suspected in the Proto-Canaanite writing, dated to around 1800 BC, Virtually all alphabets have their ultimate origins from this system. The Greek alphabet was invented around 800 BC.

Types of letters


Various scripts

The following "alphabets" (not all are alphabets) and individual letters are discussed in related articles. Each represents a different script:

Arabic alphabet: (Alphabetical from right to left) , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , هـ, , .

Syriac alphabet: (Alphabetical from right to left) ܐ, ܒ, ܓ, ܕ, ܗ, ܘ, ܙ, ܚ, ܛ, ܝ, ܟܟ, ܠ, ܡܡ, ܢܢ, ܣ, ܥ, ܦ, ܨ, ܩ, ܪ, ܫ, ܬ.

Cyrillic alphabet: А, Б, В, Г, Ґ, Д, Е, Є, Ж, З, И, І, Ї, Й, К, Л, М, Н, О, П, Р, С, Т, У, Ф, Х, Ц, Ч, Ш, Щ, Ю, Я, Ъ, Ь, Ђ, Љ, Њ, Ћ, Џ, Ы.

Greek alphabet: Α, Β, Γ, Δ, Ε, Ζ, Η, Θ, Ι, Κ, Λ, Μ, Ν, Ξ, Ο, Π, Ρ, Σ, Τ, Υ, Φ, Χ, Ψ, Ω.

Hebrew alphabet: (Alphabetical from right to left) א, ב, ג, ד, ה, ו, ז, ח, ט, י, כ, ל, מ, נ, ס, ע, פ, צ, ק, ר, ש, ת.

Latin alphabet: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, W, X, Y, Z.

For other writing systems and their letters, see List of writing systems and List of alphabets.

A Cyrillic letter Я shown in upper and lower case, and in italics

Upper and lower case

Some writing systems have two major forms for each letter: an upper case form (also called capital or majuscule) and a lower case form (also called minuscule). Upper and lower case forms represent the same sound, but serve different functions in writing. Capital letters are most often used at the beginning of a sentence, as the first letter of a proper name, or in inscriptions or headers. They may also serve other functions, such as in the German language where all nouns begin with capital letters.

Typeface and font

A letter may be printed in a number of different sizes or forms, depending on choice of typeface. A typeface is a single, stylistically consistent set of forms for letters (or glyphs). A particular typeface may alter standard forms of characters, may present them with different optical weight, or may angle or embellish their forms. A font is more specific than a typeface, since it specifies the size of the letters as well as the form.

In calligraphy, letters are written artistically and may or may not be consistent throughout a work.

Letter frequencies

The average distribution of letters, or the relative frequency of each letter's occurrence in text in a given language can be obtained analyzing large amounts of representative text. This information can be useful in cryptography and for other purposes as well. Letter frequencies vary in different types of writing. In English, the most frequently appearing ten letters are e, t, a, o, i, n, s, h, r, and d, in that order, with the letter e appearing about 13% of the time.

See also


  • Daniels, Peter T., and William Bright, eds. 1996. The World's Writing Systems. ISBN 0-19-507993-0.
  • Powell, Barry B. 1991. Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet. ISBN 9780521589079 | ISBN 052158907X.
  • Robinson A. 2003, "The Origins of writing" in David Crowely and Paul Heyer 'Communication in History: Technology, Culture, Society' (fourth edition) Allyn and Bacon Boston pp 34-40

External links


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