Now We Know Our ABCs: The Story of the Alphabet

My youngest child is learning to read. If you haven’t experienced the process in the third person, you really are missing out on a very arduous journey that is nothing short of miraculous. As someone reading an esoteric history blog, you doubtless cracked the code many years ago, and reading is surely a very normal thing for you. The twenty-six symbols that make up our alphabet go almost unnoticed even as they unlock an infinite number of doors to the ideas and stories that give our lives meaning. Most of us first learned of the alphabet with the help of one of the most widely known English-language songs and it seems intuitive to assume its letters serve as the DNA of our language. But the invention of the alphabet was not inevitable, and from the time we began to speak, most members of our species made no connection between the words that left their lips and the odd squiggly lines that fill the books, magazines, and web pages of our modern world.

Language, in general may be the single most important evolutionary adaptation that allowed human beings to conquer the planet. Speech gave rise to the ability to conceptualize and therefore manipulate the world around them in ways no other creature could. There is no definitive time frame as to when Homo sapiens began to speak, but the development probably came about when our ancestors vocalized sounds to mimic those of their natural surroundings in order to improve their cooperative hunting skills. There is no real consensus as to when we became talking apes, but it most certainly happened sometime between when we began making tools (two million years ago) and drawing art on cave walls (fifty thousand years ago).

If hunting by nomadic bands was the impetus for the evolution of the spoken word, it was our gradual shift to living in sedentary civilizations that spurred us to find a way to put those words into some kind of visible form whose meaning could outlast the time span of a conversation. To our knowledge, writing developed independently in three separate locations where societies became increasingly stratified and the oral tales told around campfires could no longer account for the necessity of complex record-keeping. During the Shang Dynasty in China a system evolved in which each unit of writing, made up of different types of pen strokes represents a word or phrase. This type of writing, called logography evolved from symbols carved into ox scapulae and turtle shells that were used to divine the future. Across the ocean, in South America a variety of scripts have been discovered, though many have still not been deciphered. The earliest of these used by the Olmec civilization as far as three thousand years ago devised a similar logographic technique for maintaining financial records. The highly developed Inca civilization of South America lacked a written script, but it devised an amazing form of cataloging important information called quipu. Using a series of knotted ropes of various colors, sizes, and materials, the central authorities of the vast empire were able to record figures for census and taxation purposes and to keep an accurate calendar. However, there is some new evidence that these ropes may have told more subjective stories by representing more than just numbers, but also serving as symbols for more abstract ideas or even units of sound for an unwritten language.


Top: Chinese oracle bone, Shang Dynasty (1556 to 1046 BCE) Bottom: Incan quipu as depicted in The First New Chronicle and Good Government (El primer nueva corónica y buen gobierno) by Guaman Poma c. 1615

In Mesopotamia a system called cuneiform developed around the fourth millennium BCE that is likely the oldest writing system on Earth. It was written by pressing marks into soft lumps of clay and then baking them into hard tablets. Like the forms of writing discussed above, it probably evolved out of earlier use of symbols meant to represent financial transactions and as the functions of society became more complex, more precise characters were needed to convey increasingly intricate ideas. Initially, cuneiform was strictly logographic, but over time notations were added to denote syntax and pronunciation.  Eventually, this allowed Sumerian scribes to go beyond mere record-keeping to writing down the decrees of kings and the collective lore of their people Hammurabi’s Code was likely the first set of laws put down in writing, dating to around the eighteenth century BCE. The earliest known piece of fiction on Earth, the four-thousand year old poem The Epic of Gilgamesh was able to be recorded because of the increasing complexity of the script. Cuneiform became the writing systems for a vast array cultures that grew in the heavily populated world of the fertile crescent and remained so for more than three thousand years.

One of the nearby civilizations that was probably influenced by cuneiform was Egypt. Egyptian writing was called hieroglyphics, a word that translates in Greek to “sacred etchings” (Egyptians called them medu netjer, or “words of the gods”).  According to Egyptian mythology, the signs were delivered by the divine scribe Thoth, who in Promethean fashion, delivered thousands of symbols to humans against the will of the sun god Ra. Like Sumerian writing, Egyptian inscriptions contained pictographs that each represented an idea or object, but these were used in conjunction with syllabic symbols and other grammatical features that allowed for scribes to record a very wide swath of ideas. However, hieroglyphic writing was was an extremely complicated and difficult skill to acquire that required learning thousands of characters in order to become literate. It was used primarily by temple priests and understanding of this wide array of hieroglyphs was the purview of only a tiny subset of the population.

Hieroglyphics on the wall of a temple in Karnak, Egypt.

But common people weren’t stupid and they did realize that the intricate little pictures that were carved into walls and columns of temples and other buildings all over their cities were meant to convey ideas. One group of immigrants living in Egypt around three thousand years ago, likely Semitic mercenary soldiers who’d come to the empire and noticed the esoteric pictographs everywhere, adopted a number of the commonly recurring symbols as the basis for a less complicated system of writing. Rather than using the ubiquitous images to represent meanings that they weren’t privy to anyway, they organized a series of glyphs into a newer more compact format that greatly reduced the number of symbols necessary to learn from thousands to just twenty-two. In the process they expanded the power of writing to represent an even wider number of ideas. What happened in some work site in Egypt around 1900 BCE radically altered the world forever.

We know so little about how this process unfolded or how long it took. Did a single enterprising individual sit down and work out the phonetic alphabet or was it a group effort? Was it undertaken by a stroke of inspiration or did it develop gradually and organically over years or decades? We can only speculate on how it happened. There was a method to the madness, though. Each of the symbols was named for a separate object and represented the first sound in that name. The first letter of the Semitic alphabet was called “alef” one that is still used in writing systems of Semitic languages like Arabic and Hebrew. Its name comes from an old word for “ox” and its symbol was a simplified version of an Egyptian glyph of an ox head ( Aleph). Alef is the ancestor of our letter A that, as we’ll see. traveled through cultures and changed form as it did so. If we trace its history, we can see that when turned upside down, our modern letter still bears the ox horns of its ancestor. The rest of the letters in the alphabet worked the same way; bet (O1 ) meant “house” and was represented the /b/ sound and gimmel (T14) the Semitic alphabet’s /g/ sound meant meant “stick” or “staff”. We can still see signs in our alphabet today of the names given to their letters. The letter mim (PhoenicianM-01.png) took its name from the Semitic word for “water” and is the ancestor of our letter “M”, a letter whose modern shape still has the wavy features of its ancient grandparent. O can be traced back to the letter ‘eyn (Ayin) the word for “eye”. Think on that next time an O is staring up at you.

The evolution of the letter A from Egyptian hieroglyph to the modern alphabet.

We know almost nothing about these early authors of the alphabet, but we do know a bit more about the people we call the Phoneticians (with the glaring exception of what they actually called themselves). The Phoneticians were by all accounts an inventive people, great traders and seafarers, they turned the Mediterranean into a vast empire built not on conquest but on a commercial enterprise bolstered by trading outposts and colonies across Europe and North Africa. This massive operation undoubtedly made the prospect of an easy form of record keeping very attractive and they readily adopted the alphabet invented in Egypt and sometime around 1000 BCE, adapted it to their own language (which was also a Semitic one). They called their new letters the “alefbet” named for the first two letters alef and bet, and as you can probably see, the root of our word “alphabet”.

The Phonetician writing system became the wellspring from which all other alphabets formed. In the East, their system was adapted to other Semitic languages like Hebrew (עִבְרִית‎) and an old Bedouin language that would eventually bring the script to speakers of Arabic (العَرَبِيَّة).  The alefbet was adopted throughout the Fertile Crescent and eventually displaced the cuneiform systems that had dominated for millennia. It also found its way into India around 500 BCE and inspired the Brahmi script that evolved into Devanagari (देवनागरी) that is so widely used in the subcontinent today. Various versions of this alphabet traveled along with Buddhist missionaries to Tibet, Myanmar, Thailand, and Indonesia and inspired each to adapt writing systems to their own languages. The complex system of writing that is used in Japan today is mainly based on the Chinese pictographic system, but it also includes syllabic symbols called hiragana and katakana (ひらがな and カタカナ) that were influenced by Buddhist texts written in Brahmi-derived alphabets. The only living alphabet that appears to have been invented without direct or indirect influence from the Semitic one spread by the Phoneticians is the Korean hangeul (한글) invented independently in the fourteenth century.

Pillar of the great Indian emperor, Ashoka featuring his edicts written in Brahmi script, 3rd century BCE.

What most concerns us most as readers of English, though is what happened when the Phoneticians brought their noisy little symbols west. The Greeks were the first to adopt the alefbet to their own languages and dialects finally putting an alphabet in place around 800 BCE. According to Herotodus, “the Father of History” Cadmus the legendary first king of Thebes received the letters as a gift from Phonetician guests. There is no record of this meeting (or of the existence of king Cadmus) and likely, the adoption of the alphabet happened organically over time.

Spoken Greek didn’t share a linguistic lineage with Phonetician so they had to make adaptations to the alefbet in order to make it fit their language. Most obviously the Semitic alphabet of the Phoneticians lacked vowels (for reasons related to the grammatical structure of Semitic languages that need not trouble us here) so the Greeks took some of the consonants like He (He) and Yodh (Yodh)turned them into vowels (Epsilon – Ε – and Iota – Ι –respectively) . The Semitic names for their letters were attached to ideas (alef – ox, etc.) that inspired their shape. In Greece they were given new shapes and names (alef became alpha, bet – beta, gimmel – gamma, etc.) that had no meaning outside of their role as representatives of individual sounds. Some Greek letters developed colloquial uses such as when Greek seafarers noticed that of the mouth of the Nile river in Egypt looked a bit like the triangular symbol for their /d/ (Δ) sound and thus got dubbed a river “delta”.

Like the Phoneticians, Greek travelers traversed the Mediterranean and established colonies from Spain to Russia to Africa. They brought with them their culture, philosophy, and that new alphabet of theirs, and locals took notice. Included among these groups was the dominant power in the Italian peninsula around 600 BCE. They are  not the ones you’re thinking of (not yet) but rather a people whose language has long disappeared from the Earth, though we may very well owe the existence of the word “letter” to them. The Etruscan language was neither Semitic nor was it related to any of the language families in Europe then or now. When the Etruscans adopted the Greek alphabet to their language they needed to make further modifications to fit the sounds of their speech and these changes resulted in an alphabet much closer in visual appearance to the one with which we are familiar. We know much less about the language of the Etruscans than we might have had they not been eclipsed in power by another Italian state a few centuries later. A plucky little city state on the west coast of the Italian peninsula called Rome adapted the alphabet from their more powerful neighbor and when they surpassed the Etruscans, it became known as the Latin alphabet.

Family tree of the evolution of alphabetic writing systems that originated from the original twenty-two letter alphabet developed in Egypt about three thousand years ago.

That alphabet traveled with Roman armies as they conquered large swaths of Europe, Asia, and North Africa and although it never displaced Greek in the East, it became the lingua franca in Western Europe for more than a thousand years. When Julius Caesar and his armies landed on the island of Britannia in 55 BCE they brought their ABCs. That’s not the end of the alphabet’s journey to become the writing system of English-speakers. When Roman power receded and the empire’s forces left the island around the fifth century, other invaders moved in and it eventually became home to of a group of tribes called the Angles and the Saxons. The Anglo-Saxons spoke a Germanic language they called Ænglisc that we today call Old English, even though to our ears it would have sounded more like Norwegian or Icelandic.

Like many of the other Germanic tribes that ruled northern Europe who were inspired by the Roman ability to write their thoughts down, the Anglo-Saxons initially adopted a runic alphabet. Germanic runes were based on the letters of the Latin alphabet and were widely used for writing the various German languages of Northern Europe, beginning around the middle of the second century. The Anglo-Saxons called their version of the runic lettering system furthorc (an acronym made up of the first six runes of their alphabet – feoh, ur, thorn, os, rad, and cen) it dominated from around the fifth to seventh centuries until Christian missionaries introduced the Roman alphabet and pushed it use as a more “civilized” form of writing. But the two alphabets coexisted in England until perhaps the eleventh century. Even then it lingered for some time; the earliest extant Old English manuscript, a copy of the epic poem Beowulf is written in the Latin script but is smattered throughout with furthorc runes. As we’ll see, there are still traces of the furthorc in our modern day spelling conventions. Runic writing is largely dead, but it has had a bit of a resurgence in the Information Age. Jim Kardach an intel engineer was inspired to name his technology after a Danish King he’d been reading about in a book about Vikings. The king’s name was Harald Bluetooth and he gained fame by uniting the Danes. Kardach  similarly looked to unite two separate entities by connecting fixed and mobile devices and formed his company’s logo by combining the runes Runic letter ior.svg (Haglaz) and Runic letter berkanan.svg (Berkanan) that were Harald Bluetooth’s initials.



Top: Anglo-Saxon runes from Codex Sangallensis, 878 CE. Middle:  The Frank’s casket, an Anglo-Saxon box made of whale’s bone and carved with furthorc runes, c. 8th century  CE Bottom: The Bluetooth logo a mashup of the runes (Haglaz) and (Berkanan).

I have studied a fair share of languages and each presents its challenges. Trilling Rs in Spanish and their throaty French counterparts has required learning new ways to use old letters. Turkish vowel harmony makes for a beautiful sound, but the agglutination process that uses an endless array of prefixes and postfixes to add meaning to a root word can result in long and unwieldy words like, Muvaffakiyetsizleştiricileştiriveremeyebileceklerimizdenmiş (which translates to something like, “You are talking as if you were one of those we can not easily/quickly turn into a maker-of-unsuccessful-ones, right?”) Persian and Urdu have required learning a new alphabet and sentence structures that are initially very confusing to a native English speaker. Arabic’s root system and byzantine grammatical rules make learning it less a language lesson and more a test of will. Hindi has yet another alphabet, the Devanagari (a descendant of the Brahmi script, that was adapted from the eastern Semitic offshoot of Phonetician) and about eight different ways of pronouncing T and D. Mandarin Chinese has a a sentence structure uncannily similar to English, but as a tonal language the meaning of a word can change entirely just by raising or lowering the intonation, a feature that has thus far been well beyond my ability to master. With the exception of Mandarin which uses a non-phonetic writing system, though, each of these languages have a happy and healthy relationship with its alphabet. English, on the other hand seems to have been at war with the Latin letters ever since they became connected. The absolute anarchy that is English pronunciation is so wonderfully demonstrated by Charivarius in his 1922 poem, “The Chaos“:

Billet does not rhyme with ballet, 
Bouquet, wallet, mallet, chalet. 
Blood and flood are not like food, 
Nor is mould like should and would. 
Viscous, viscount, load and broad, 
Toward, to forward, to reward. 
And your pronunciation’s OK 
When you correctly say croquet, 
Rounded, wounded, grieve and sieve, 
Friend and fiend, alive and live.

Evolution of the Phonetician letters to the Latin script used in modern English.

George Bernard Shaw once quipped that, based on the pronunciations of the words enough women and nation, the letter combination “ghoti” could conceivably be used to spell the word “fish”. Like Charivarius, he was pointing out that the wide scope of available pronunciations connected to our alphabet, English spelling conventions were a mess. This was, in part at least, attributable to the English language’s long and strange history. The Ænglisc, speakers of a Western German tongue, migrated to the islands of Britain where they encountered native Celtic speakers who contributed little in the way of vocabulary (though we do owe them for words like “car”, “bucket”, and “flannel”), but may have had an influence on English syntax. As converts to Roman Catholicism they also absorbed a great deal of Latin into their vocabulary. In 1066, England was conquered by French-speaking Normans who altered the language greatly. Even today, linguists estimate that about a third of modern English vocabulary is French in origin. In the age of discovery that began around the sixteenth century, the descendants of those German-speaking Angles and Saxons built a great navy and a lot of coal-burning factories and conquered the world. They established an empire with colonies on every continent, save Antarctica, and from faraway place like Hong Kong, India, Egypt and North and South America they gained words like “jungle”, “chess”, “tea”, “soy”, “tattoo”, “alcohol”, “kayak”, and “jazz”. Along the way, something called The Great Vowel Shift occurred. Between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries the sound of spoken English changed drastically for reasons not well understood. In many cases the written forms of words stayed stuck in forms that represented pre-shift pronunciations  resulting in standardized spellings that made sense hundreds of years ago, but much less so today.

One of the most perplexing things about English is the existence of the letter C. Though accounting for a fairly high percentage of English spelling (it is the tenth most common  letter used in English spelling) it contributes only one original function, its part of the /ch/ sound. Otherwise, k and s could easily handle most of its duties. Q is even more useless, handling only one sound, /k/ doing so far less frequently than C and not even able to do so without the help of the letter U. In Latin the C only had a hard sound (yes, that means Caesar was pronounced like German “kaiser” and the great Roman statesman and tragic hero, Cicero was called “Kikero” in his time). The Etruscans who didn’t have need of a /g/ sound but had several ways of saying /k/, changed Greek gamma, to C to take one of these spots. Romans originally used the letters C, K, and Q interchangeably for both the /k/ and /g/ sounds. Eventually, C began to do most of this work itself in Latin and a little tail was added to distinguish the /k/ -C from /g/-C and G evolved into a letter in its own right. C and Q remain part of our alphabet not out of usefulness but because tradition and inertia keep them there.

The Roman alphabet had twenty-three letters, three shy of our own as Latin required less sound variation than English does. Even as missionaries were “civilizing” the newly converted Anglo-Saxons with the brand new Latin alphabet, the Germanic runes continued to be used for sounds that were not well-represented in the Latin writing system. English writing included certain runic symbols well after the Roman alphabet was adopted (accounting for the appearance of runes in the tenth century manuscript of “Beowulf”). Rune-Thorn.png, or “thorn” continued to be used to represent the /th/ sound until the letters “TH” became the standard means of doing so in the Middle Ages. Before this transition, the letter Y was often used to replace Rune-Thorn.png, which is why one can still find drinking establishments called “Ye Olde Tavern”. We now say /yee/ but old English drinkers would have pronounced the “ye” the same way we now say “the”.

No letter from the original Semitic alphabet has more grandchildren than “waw” Proto-semiticW-01.png a letter that has been pronounced alternatively as /w/ and /v/ two sounds that are close related (think of the German pronunciation of “vhere are your papers?”).  It continued its journey from Phonetician to Greek diagamma – as the representative of the /w/ sound, but the Romans had greater need for a /f/ sound and so waw took the job. In Phonetician “waw” could also represent the vowel-sound, /oo/ so the Romans adapted it into another form, “U” that was both a consonant /y/ sound and vowel /oo/ sound. However, being that straight lines are easier to carve in stone, “U” was often written as “V”, though the Romans had no need to use the phoneme /v/ so despite appearance, Latin had no V. English speakers, though, needed not just /v/ and /oo/, but also /w/. The rune ᚹ (“wen”) was used until the thirteenth century for /w/ when they adopted the Roman convention of putting two U’s together to make this sound – yeah that’s right, a double U. The scribes who wrote “UU” were often in a hurry to complete manuscripts and so the two letters were often blurred into a single scratched out entity that became a letter on its own sometime around the fourteenth century. V came later, joining English manuscripts around the mid-sixteenth century.

The last letter to join our alphabet was J. The tenth letter was developed around the fifteenth century by the French, who used the Roman I as both a vowel and a consonant.  Latin spelled the name of the largest planet with an “I” (and pronounced it “Yupiter”). Over the centuries this sound changed in the mouths of French-speakers to /zh/ and so Parisian scribes developed a modified I with a little curve at the bottom. This also made sense for English and J first appeared in our language around 1640. Though a well-needed addition to the spoken language, as we’ll see, it took a couple of centuries before J was fully welcomed into the alphabet club.

Samuel Johnson’s 1755 masterwork, A Dictionary of the English Language was  not the first attempt to standardize our chaotic tongue, but it was the largest and most compendious to that date. Johnson gave the better part of a decade to its writing, for which he hoped that, “the pronunciation of our language may be fixed, and its attainment facilitated; by which its purity may be preserved, its use ascertained, and its duration lengthened.” The massive work contained more than forty-two thousand  words and tens of thousands of quotations and literary allusions he hoped would solidify the meanings of words. Although one does not usually think of the dictionary as a source of humor, Johnson, a former journalist and satirist chose to define many words using more acerbic wit than etymological rigidity. The most cited example is his entry for  “oats” which he defined thusly: “a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”.  A modern reader would certainly find difficulty navigating his dictionary, particularly if looking for words beginning with J and V, letters he did not see fit to provide with chapters of their own, placing them instead in the I and U sections respectively. Though both letters preceded him by centuries, Johnson, ever the conservative, wanted to maintain some sense of ruliness upon the old Roman alphabet and he simply did not accept the letterness of these newcomers.

Perhaps things would have remained this way if not for the plucky new American nation full of stubborn contrarians not content to just sever political ties with the crown, but also out to carve their own cultural norms. Noah Webster sought to do his part by writing a dictionary of his own, that bucked the conventions of the King’s English and to conform to the modern conventions that had taken hold. He is the one responsible for American spellings of “gray” “color” “draft” and “theater” (as opposed to the British “grey” “colour” “draught” and “theatre”). When he created the An American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828 he did away with Johnson’s twenty-four letter alphabet and gave J and V their own entries and thus instituted the twenty-six letter alphabet we now enjoy.


Top: Samuel Johnson Bottom: Noah Webster

Although there are twenty-six names for letters, there are twice that number in symbols. That’s because each letter has two forms, the majiscule and the miniscule, or, in plain English, uppercase and lowercase. There is actually no functional necessity for letters in the Latin alphabet to appear in two forms. I’ve never had any trouble understanding the meaning of a sentence written in all capitals, as for example when an online communicator sees fit to highlight their seriousness by keeping the Caps Lock on at all times. Classical Latin was written entirely in uppercase form and initially the the languages that adopted its alphabet followed suit. However, scribes who spent many hours of the day copying texts found the long straight lines of the alphabet inefficient for their tedious work so they developed curved versions of the these letters. It’s not clear when these two ways of writing the alphabet became mixed, but by the time the printing press was introduced in the fifteenth century, documents featured a mix of the two writing styles were the norm. Printers kept the two sets of letters separated into different drawers, or as they called them, cases. Miniscules were kept in the lower case and the majiscules in the upper, a naming convention that still holds today.

18th century type case, illustration by Christian Friedrich Gessner, 1740

Though the authors of the first Semitic alphabet took the lofty and esoteric hieroglyphs of the Egyptians and reduced their meaning to mere units of sound, more sublime ideas could not help but reassert themselves into the symbols. They are the building block of every poem, holy book, and treatise, and thus represent the molecules of meaning for all human ideas that have been transmitted via the written word, so, really, how could they not be seen as magical?

The spread of the Semitic alphabet and its descendants coincided with what German philosopher Karl Jaspers called The Axial Age, a period of about five hundred years (eighth to third centuries BCE) in which many of the foundational thinkers and teachers of the world lived and taught during a relatively short span. In China, Lao Zi and Confucius each gave weight to to philosophies of heaven and earth; The Buddha and Mahavira founded Indian religious traditions that still exist today; Zoroaster, the Iranian prophet introduced the world to the idea of monotheism; in Judea the prophets Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah became mouthpieces for the Biblical God; and in Greece Homer and Hesiod told sweeping stories of their people’s myths while Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle tried to conceptualize the world in a more rational manner. It is often considered to be a time of early globalization in which ideas traveled and cross-pollinated, but perhaps more importantly, there was now a tool for recording thoughts thoughts and ideas that had not been available to similar figures who’d lived in earlier times. The Hebrew Bible, Upanishads, Mahabharata, Ramayana, Zend Avesta, Tao Te Ching, Analects, Dhammapada, The Oddysey and Illiad, and later the Greek New Testament and Arabic Qur’an all exist in large part because there was a technology that allowed them to be written down.


From top to bottom: Gautma Buddha, Confucius, and Homer

But, as they’ve traveled across languages and through time and space, the letters themselves have also sparked the human imagination. Perhaps, in part because letters of the Semitic alphabet had names with specific concrete meaning related to their physical shapes, they were more amenable to adding additional layers of symbolic meaning. Both Judaism and Islam place a great deal of importance on not just the wording of their holy books, but also on the contents of the writing that fill their pages. Both faiths developed  systems that equated letters of their respective alphabet with numeric quantities, giving some believers an additional tool for interpreting their texts. For practitioners within the Jewish mystical tradition known as Kabbalah, there were hidden codes throughout the Hebrew Bible that could be deciphered using the numerical meanings of certain words. For example, the letters that spell one of the names for God, Elohim, adds up to eighty-six. This is the same value as the word, hateva that means “nature”, a sign that Kabbalah practitioners use to suggest God is one with the natural laws of the universe.

The ancient book of esoteric wisdom, Sefer Yetzirah and the more recent Zohar have posited that the letters existed before creation and are the source of messages sent God had used the letters to send secret messages that only his most committed worshipers could decipher. Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hasidic sect of Judaism, taught that everything in the cosmos is made up of a unique combination of the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet, a sort of periodic table in letter form. According to legend, there is a mysterious twenty-third letter somewhere in the universe whose pronunciation is waiting to be discovered. Its absence is the source of all mankind’s sin and strife and if it could be rediscovered, the world would be healed. This idea was echoed wonderfully in Jorge Luis Borges’ short story, “The Aleph”  in which the narrator finds a divine manifestation of the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet suspended in the air of his neighbor’s basement, and in gazing at it is able to see the oneness of all things.

One of the more well known expression of the power of Hebrew letters discussed in the Sefer Yetzirah is the ability to create a creature known as a golem. In Jewish lore the golem is an entity usually made of carved stone or clay who has brought to life by a learned person who places a slip of paper with holy letters written upon it into the creature’s mouth or carved sacred letters into its forehead. The animated golem can then be controlled and used for purposes benign or nefarious. The most famous story of this creature is The Golem of Prague, a popular nineteenth century tale set three centuries earlier. According to the story, the city’s Jewish ghetto is plagued by frequent attacks and pogroms. When a radical Catholic priest begins preaching anti-Semitic sermons, Rabbi Loeb guided by the Sefer Yetzirah, constructs a golem to protect the Jewish community from the rising tension. He carves the Hebrew word for “truth” – emet – into the head of his golem, animating the mighty creature who soon has the community’s enemies fleeing in fear. As is often the case in golem legends, though, something goes wrong and the creator loses control of his creation. Before long, the golem begins to run amok and attack innocent people and Rabbi Loeb is forced to take the golem out. He does so by removing the alif (the first letter of emet) from the creature’s forehead, leaving it with the word met or “death” and withdrawing the life-giving force of the holy letters. According to legend the lifeless husk of the golem was hidden away in the rabbi’s attic and still remains out in the world, perhaps to be revived in a future time of great danger. 

Rabbi Loew and Golem illustration by Mikoláš Aleš, 1899. Note the Hebrew letters carved into the golem’s forehead.

In Islamic tradition, the spoken Arabic (a Semitic language related to Hebrew) is the divine vehicle in which God chose to reveal himself to his final prophet. The holy book of Islam, The Qur’an, cannot accurately be translated into other tongues as every word and  letter reveals far more to the believer than just the sounds they represent. The role of  the Arabic letters is summed up by eighth century philosopher and jurist, Ja‘far al-Sādiq, “The object of… (God’s) will were (sic) the letters from which God made the principal of all things.” Ibn Khaldun, the great Muslim Tunisian historian, dedicated a chapter in his magnum opus The Muqaddimah on the power of the letters in the Arabic alphabet, the science of which is called Za’irajah or “letter magic”. This was a form of divination used to reveal secret meanings in any given passage of The Qur’an that might be missed by those who simply read its words without deeper analysis into their makeup. For this reason, calligraphy (or khat), the art of writing Arabic in ornate styles is not only a beautiful craft, but for the calligrapher, writing the letters of The Qur’an individually is itself an act of worship.

A similar notion was injected into Germanic runes. Even today, particularly within today’s New Age community, the ancient letters hold important secrets of the cosmos that can be used alongside magical crystals and essential oils. Like the Semitic alphabets, several generations removed from them, runes held greater symbolic meaning than just the sounds they made.  In the ancient Nordic poem, Hávamál,  translated as “The Words of Odin the High One” the might deity willingly subjects himself to a nine day ordeal,  hanging himself upon the side of the world tree Yggdrasil without food or water, a sacrifice necessary in order to obtain the power of the sacred runes kept until then by the Norns (fates) in the Well of Urd at the bottom of the universe. After persevering in his quest, Odin wins the runes and then shares them with humanity, granting the gift of not mere phonetic symbols, but also the power to control the spiritual and material worlds. In the epic Icelandic poem, Egil’s Saga, there is a passage in which the hero encounters a very sick girl living on a farm. Her father begs Egil for help and upon investigation he discovers a whalebone carved with runes hidden under the girl’s bed. Deducing the letters were carved with malevolent intent and have left a curse upon the girl, he removes the accursed bone and carves a new set of runes that return her to health.

The Norns Urðr, Verðandi, and Skuld under the world oak Yggdrasil, illustration by Ludwig Burger, 1882.

The Greek alphabet stripped the Semitic letters of any meaning except for their role in representing individual sounds. But they recognized that the importance of these symbols transcended this mundane function. In Greek tradition Prometheus, the tragic Titan was punished for all eternity for granting humans the gift of fire that he’d stolen from the gods in Olympus. The playwright Aeschylus wrote that Prometheus also taught humans the use of letters to form words. To my knowledge he was not punished for doing so. The mythologist Hyginus suggests that the alphabet was a collaborative effort; the Morae (fates) gave humans the vowels and consonants beta and theta, Palamedes, legendary hero of the Trojan War invented the rest of the consonants. Another legend says that god Hermes was inspired by the shapes made by a flock of flying cranes and taught the letters he modeled off of them to humanity. Still another tale written by the Isidore of Seville in the sixth century suggested that the letters are products of Egypt written by Isis and then brought to Greece via the Phoneticians. Given the history we now know, there is some truth to this account, absent, of course, the part about the Egyptian god of the dead. According to Roman legend, Carmenta the goddess of prophecy took the letters of Greece and made them into Roman letters. Thanks Carmenta.

Carmenta writing the Roman letters, miniature painting from De Mulieribus Claris, c 14th century CE

While the Greek alphabet removed Semitic meanings and the Roman alphabet steered the Anglo-Saxons away from magical runes, they began to obtain newer meanings over the last few centuries. This time they were not mystical in nature, but arising out of the scientific revolution that began taking hold during the sixteenth century with Copernicus’ discovery that the Earth revolved around the sun. As pioneers strove to replace theological models of the universe with empirical ones, they looked back to ancient Greece and the period of rational inquiry that grew out of the philosophical schools of the pre-Christian era.

An astronomer unfamiliar with the Greek alphabet would be illiterate in her field of study. Greek letters are used to denote everything from the relative brightness of stars, the angle of planet or moon’s orbit, to the expansion rate of the universe. Alpha (α)  is used in physics (alpha particles) chemistry (alpha carbon) and in behavioral biology it represents the leader of a herd or pack. Delta (Δ) symbolizes changes in math and science and the most powerful form of electromagnetic radiation are gamma (Γ) rays, as any fan of comic book characters like The Hulk and Spider-man know. Then there is Pi, usually represented by the lowercase Greek form, π. Pi is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter and it serves as a a means of calculating the area of a circle, a figure that has been independently discovered in Babylon, ancient China, India, and in Greece in thousands of years ago. Eighteenth century mathematicians took to calling it Pi short for the Greek word for perímetros (“perimeter”) and it has been used as a mathematical constant to measure all sorts of phenomena in math and physics. In Carl Sagan’s lone published work of fiction, Contact, Pi holds a secret code placed within its long post-decimal digits (3.14159265359…).  Physicists looking to answer the question of whether or not we are living in a computer simulation have looked for clues within the number to determine if there is some sort of pattern. Director Darren Aronofsky’s debut feature, entitled Pi, is about a tormented mathematical genius whose life work involves decoding nature’s hidden meaning through number sequences. He stumbles onto a long number sequence that apparently unlocks the code, and for his efforts is tormented by Hasidic mystics, Wall Street traders, and a very serious anxiety disorder. Even non-mathematicians pay homage to this letter every fourteenth of March, a day that has become known as Pi Day (3/14=3.14).

Mathemetician Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) tries to crack the mysteries built into the Greek letter π in Darren Aronofsky’s 1998 directorial debut, Pi

Our alphabet, too, is more well represented in science than in myth. In shorthand, Latin letters compliment Greek as abbreviations for measurement terms like like g (grams), C (Celsius) v (volts) etc. The Periodic Table identifies the basic building blocks of the universe with Roman letters to symbolize words that are often Greek in origin. In algebra letters are used to represent variables; earlier letters a, b, c, etc. are generally used to symbolize known quantities while x, y, and z are unknown quantities. Probably the most well known mathematical equation is E = mc², Albert Einstein’s formula for calculating the amount of energy (E) in any given body of matter, figured by multiplying its mass (m) by the speed of light squared (c²).  Music theory uses the letters A-G to represent the seven notes in an octave, or as you may have heard, do, ray, me, fa, so, la, and ti.

Outside of the field of science with its mandate for precision and accuracy, letters have entered culture free to do as they will. Harry S. Truman didn’t actually have a middle name but the S did make him sound presidential. Malcolm X purposely used the letter in place of his given last name in order to represent the fact that his family name had been stolen from his ancestors by slave traders. Jesus H Christ is a common phrase to express exasperation, though to my knowledge what exactly the “H” stand for is as big a mystery as the nature of the trinity. Franz Kafka used this device several times in his stories. The protagonist K in The Castle and Joseph K in The Trial stripped of their full names to represent their alienation of humanity that haunted much of the author’s work. In Daniel Quinn’s The Story of B, a mysterious teacher has gained the attention of the Vatican who suspects he may be the Antichrist.  In Thomas Pynchon’s novel, V, the title refers to a mysterious woman whose identity is never revealed (at least as far as I can tell). The world of fictional espionage world of Ian Fleming’s James Bond has agents with names like Q make the spy all sorts of cool gadgets and his boss, M, the meaning of which remains a mystery even to Bond, who is told upon questioning, that if learned what M stands for, he’d have to be killed.

In other settings we know exactly what a given letter means. Hester Prynn’s “A” in The Scarlet Letter unambiguously calls to attention the crime of adultery that has destroyed her standing in Puritan colonial Salem. The title of Fritz Lang’s 1931 horror film, M also stands for a crime, in this case the more dastardly act of murder. The same letter it echoed more explicitly in the Alfred Hitchcock classic Dial M for MurderArthur Machen uses the letter “N” to describe a mystical park that rests between two worlds including a London suburb that a group of old friends have gathered in to reminisce about the good old days. John Updike’s novel, S is a modern re-telling of The Scarlet Letter from Hester’s point of view and features a woman who has become disillusioned with modern society and gone off to join an ashram in Arizona. We know who is calling when the sword-wielding hero Zorro slashes a Z into surfaces near where a recently vanquished evil-doer lay defeated (incidentally, the letter Z descends from the Phonetician zayin, Phoenician zayin.svg whose name means “sword”). And Superman’s S is as clear a symbol as they come (though any comic book nerd will tell you it’s not actually an S on his chest, but the Kryptonian symbol for “hope”).

scarlet letter
Illustration from The Scarlet Letter, 1878 edition by Mary Hallock Foote. Notice the “A” displayed prominently on Hester’s chest

In the world of comic books, single letters have often held deep meaning. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s mutant heroes, The X-Men, got their name because Lee was too lazy to come up with an origin story and X represented mystery. Of course it also played into the fact that they were eXtra power humans led by Charles Xavier, AKA Professor X. Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta mini-series was a meditation on the increasingly conservative government of early 80s Britain. The main character, simply named “V” used the letter drawn in a circle to resemble an inverted circle A used by anarchists, a fitting representation for a character who stands for absolute freedom. The story frequently makes reference to the letter V; V’s cell number was five and he plays Beethoven’s fifth symphony on the piano (five is represented by the Roman numeral V) and Moore even quotes Thomas Pynchon’s novel, VY the Last Man a series written by Brian K. Vaughn, similarly uses the letter Y in multiple clever ways. After a terrible incident, Yorrick, the story’s protagonist and his pet monkey Ampersand are left as the planet’s sole males after a mysterious incident wipes out any other living thing with a Y chromosomes.

In our fast-paced world, letters do more work by themselves than full words often do. We lol, lmao, icymi, wtf, and btw all the time in order to save time while communicating on social media. We know an A will mean the best quality or level of achievement (though high-achieving type A personality types can sometimes be a-holes); B means lesser and F, is more a more powerful statement than the word “failure” itself. In the 90s an E in front of a word meant it was an online version of something that took much longer to do in real life (email, Etrade, Eharmony). X tells us something is mysterious or forbidden, unless it used to sign a letter with affection in which case it means kisses, deriving from the old tradition of signing letters with an X, a symbol for the cross that the signer would kiss to demonstrate undying fealty. There is a rumor that O (hugs) was used by Jews who needed to make the same sort of binding pacts but didn’t want to kiss the sign of the Christian cross.

One of the earliest achievements many of us reach in life is memorizing the twenty-six letters of the alphabet. We can probably attribute this less to the fact that the letters are the gateway to the written word, than that they are sung to the catchy tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”. Nonetheless, that simple child’s anthem, The Alphabet Song, contains within its simple lyrics, the DNA of the vast body of human knowledge and we should maybe recognize all the work they do for us every now and again.

I have nothing in the works for next month as I’ll be busy working on five, yes five, installments of Halloween history. Check back in on the first week of October when I’ll be looking at two creepy figures from Victorian London named “Jack”.

6 thoughts on “Now We Know Our ABCs: The Story of the Alphabet

  1. Very interesting and informative post!
    I find the Phoenician and Canaanite history as regards to this amusing as well, the symbology and its transition to alphabets are just beautiful.

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