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The Invention of the Alphabet

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From Egyptian to Phoenician
From Phoenician to Greek
From Greek to Latin

Figure 3: From Greek to Latin

Euboean
Greek Symbol
(ca 700 BCE)

 

Greek
Name
Early
Latin
Modern
Latin
Notes
alpha

A

 
beta

B

 
gamma

C

 
delta

D

 
epsilon

E

 
digamma

F

 
     

G

In the 3rd century BCE
Spurius Carvilius Ruga
created this from  C. 
zeta
See below
  See at bottom
eta

H

The Euboean Greeks used eta for
the English sound h , which the
Romans continued. 
theta
---
   The Romans did not have this
sound and did not use this character. 
iota

I

 
     

J

From the 14th to the 17th centuries
CE  scribes created J 
to distinguish the semi-vowel
English y from the vowel i. 
kappa

K

The Romans used K for a few
names.
lambda

L

 
mu

M

 
nu

N

 

(Ionian xi)
---
  The Etruscans listed this
in their model alphabet
but did not use it.  The
Romans never adopted it. 
omicron

O

 
pi

P

 
san
    The Etruscans had this
redundant letter and sometimes
used it but the Romans never
adopted it. 
qoppa

Q

 
rho

R

 
sigma

S

 
tau

T

 
     

U

Around 100 CE the Romans created 
this rounded form to stand solely
for the vowel, and then 
V stood for the semi-vowel alone.
upsilon
 

V

This was the original Roman 
form for both the vowel oo as in moon and
the English semi-vowel w . 
     

W

Medieval scribes created this letter, 
sometimes for our "v", sometimes
for our "w" semi-vowel.
phi
     The Etruscans adopted this
but the Romans did not need it.
Euboean xi
 

X

The Euboian Greeks used this letter
for the /ks/ combination.  The Etrusncans
used it for something else, but the Romans
adopted it with the Greek value. 
 

 

Y

Around the end of the Roman Republic, 
Y was included at the end
to transcribe upsilon in Greek loan-words.
 
 

Z

Around the end of the Roman Republic, 
Z was included at the end
to transcribe zeta in Greek loan-words.

Euboean chi/
Ionian psi
     The Etruscans and Romans
never adopted this letter.

omega
     The Etruscans and Romans
never adopted this later
Greek letter.

The Etruscans adopted the Greek alphabet from Greek colonies at Pithekoussai (on the island of Ischia) and Cumae.  In turn the Romans adopted their alphabet from the Etruscans.   The Etruscans abandonned the Greek letter names, calling the letters simply by their sounds, much as we do today. 

These Greek colonists  were from Euboea and thus  used their own  local version of the Greek alphabet at the time they colonized Italy.  One can see its influence where the Euboean gamma, delta, and sigma clearly resemble the modern Roman C, D, and S, which the Ionian forms do not.  The Euboean alphabet also used the X symbol rather than the Phoenician samekh for the consonant combination /ks/.   Since X did not come with the Phoenician alphabet, it was placed at the end.   (Most western Greek alphabets did not include the samekh symbol at all, but apparently the Euboean one did, since the Etruscans list it in their model alphabet, although they did not use it in practice.  The  Romans never even listed the samekh symbol.)  

The Greeks used the Semitic waw in two places:  for digamma, which has the consonant sound of English w, and in upsilon, where it originally had the sound of oo in "moon".  The Etruscans used F (digamma) for a /v/ sound and wrote our /f/ sound as FH.  The Romans simply used F for the sound we know.  Digamma disappeared after a while from the Greek alphabet itself.   Upsilon became the Etruscan and Roman V.  Later the Romans added the Greek upsilon itself at the end of the alphabet as Y to transcribe Greek loan-words.  

At first the Romans omitted zeta and placed the newly invented G in its place, and later they added zeta back in at the end of the alphabet to transcribe Greek loan-words. 

Qoppa, in Greek an alternative for kappa, made its way into Etruscan and Latin as Q, even though it then disappeared from the Greek alphabet.   The redundant letter san disappeared from Greek but made its way into the Etruscan alphabet, though not into the Latin one.