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Ancient Greek letters on a vase
Ancient Greek letters on a vase

A letter is a segmental symbol of a phonemic writing system. The inventory of all letters forms an alphabet. Letters broadly correspond to phonemes in the spoken form of the language, although there is rarely a consistent and exact correspondence between letters and phonemes.[1]

The word letter, borrowed from Old French letre, entered Middle English around 1200 AD, eventually displacing the Old English term bōcstæf (bookstaff). Letter is descended from the Latin littera, which may have descended from the Greek "διφθέρα" (diphthera, writing tablet), via Etruscan.[2]

Definition and usage

Further information: Grapheme, Glyph, and Character (symbol)

A letter is a type of grapheme, which is a functional unit in a writing system: a letter (or group of letters) represents visually a phoneme (a unit of sound that can distinguish one word from another in a particular language). Letters are combined to form written words, just as phonemes are combined to form spoken words. A sequence of graphemes representing a phoneme is called a multigraph. A digraph is a case of polygraphs consisting of two graphemes.[3] Examples of digraphs in English include ch, sh, and th. Some phonemes are represented by three letters, called a trigraph, such as sch in German.

The same letterform may be used in different alphabets but have different sounds. The letters ⟨H⟩, ⟨Η⟩ and ⟨Н⟩ look rather alike but are the Latin H, Greek eta and Cyrillic en respectively; conversely the letters ⟨S⟩, ⟨Σ⟩ (sigma) and ⟨С⟩ (Es (Cyrillic)) from these alphabets each represent (approximately) the same [s] sound. The basic Latin alphabet is used by hundreds of languages around the world,[4] but there are many other alphabets.

Specific names are associated with letters, which may differ with language, dialect, and history. Z, for example, is usually called zed in all English-speaking countries except the US, where it is named zee. As elements of alphabets, letters have prescribed orders, although this too may vary by language. In Spanish, for instance, ⟨ñ⟩ is a separate letter, sorted separately from ⟨n⟩: this distinction is not usually recognised in English dictionaries. (In computer systems, each has its own unique code point, U+006E n N and U+00F1 ñ LATIN SMALL LETTER N WITH TILDE, respectively.)

Letters may also have a numerical or quantitative value. This applies to Roman numerals and the letters of other writing systems. In English, Arabic numerals are typically used instead of letters. Greek and Latin letters have a variety of modern uses in mathematics, science, and engineering.

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, etc.
  3. The shape of the letter, e.g. A-clamp, A-frame, D-ring, F-clamp, G-clamp, H-block, H engine, O-ring, R-clip, S or Z twist, U engine, U-bend, V engine, W engine, X engine, Z-drive, a river delta, omega block
  4. Other reasons, e.g. X-ray after "x the unknown" in algebra, because the discoverer did not know what they were

History of alphabetic writing

Engravings of decorated Latin letters, from the 18th century (note the lack of a J and a U)

Main articles: History of writing and History of the alphabet

Before there were alphabets there were pictographs: small pictures representing objects and concepts. Ancient Egyptian examples date to about 3000 BCE.[5] Pictographs could communicate basic ideas, but were general and ambiguous if they were comprehensible at all. Grammatical tense, for example, could not be specified, and symbols do not necessarily carry meaning across cultures. Memorization of tens of thousands of symbols is a daunting task; children from cultures that use logograms–word symbols–to represent words take years longer to learn to read and write than children learning an alphabet. The relative ease of memorizing 26 letters contributed to the spread of literacy throughout the world.[citation needed]

The first consonantal alphabet found emerged around 1800 BCE to represent the language of the Phoenicians, Semitic workers in Egypt (see Middle Bronze Age alphabets), and was derived from the alphabetic principles of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. The Latin alphabet (used in Western and Central Europe and the former European colonies) derives from this Phoenician alphabet, which had 22 letters. Nineteen of the present letters of the Latin alphabet evolved from the early Phoenician forms; letter shapes and order of appearance correspond closely. The Greek alphabet, adapted around 800 BCE, added four letters to the Phoenician list. This Greek alphabet was the first to assign letters not only to consonant sounds, but also to vowels.[6] The Roman Empire brought the development and refinement of the Latin alphabet, beginning around 500 BCE. The Romans added or dropped certain letters to accommodate Greek and Etruscan words; they also experimented with styles such as cursive when writing in ink. By about the fifth century CE, the beginnings of lowercase letterforms began to emerge in Roman writing, but they did not come into common use until the end of the Middle Ages, a thousand years later.

Types of letters

The American manual alphabet, an example of letters in fingerspelling.
The American manual alphabet, an example of letters in fingerspelling.

Upper case and lower case

Ascenders (as in "h") and descenders (as in "p") make the height of lower-case letters vary.
Ascenders (as in "h") and descenders (as in "p") make the height of lower-case letters vary.

Main article: Letter case

A letter can have multiple variants, or allographs, related to variation in style of handwriting or printing. Some writing systems have two major types of allographs for each letter: an uppercase form (also called capital or majuscule) and a lowercase form (also called minuscule). Upper- and lowercase letters 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 title, or in headers or inscriptions.[7] They may also serve other functions, such as in the German language where all nouns begin with capital letters.[8]

The terms uppercase and lowercase originated in the days of handset type for printing presses. Individual letter blocks were kept in specific compartments of drawers in a type case. Capital letters were stored in a higher drawer or upper case.[9][10]

Diacritics

Main article: Diacritics

In most alphabetic scripts, diacritics (or accents) are a routinely used. English is unusual in not using them except for loanwords from other languages or personal names (for example, naïve, Brontë). The ubiquity of this usage is indicated by the existence of precomposed characters for use with computer systems (for example ⟨á⟩, ⟨à⟩, ⟨ä⟩, ⟨â⟩, ⟨ã⟩.)

Examples of letters in writing systems

See also: List of writing systems

Venn diagram of letters in the Greek, Cyrillic and Latin alphabets. Certain letters appear in two or more of these alphabets, although they may not represent the same sound.
Venn diagram of letters in the Greek, Cyrillic and Latin alphabets. Certain letters appear in two or more of these alphabets, although they may not represent the same sound.

In the following table, letters from multiple different writing systems are shown, to demonstrate the variety of letters used throughout the world.

Example alphabet Letters in example alphabet
Assamese alphabet অ, আ, ই, ঈ, উ, ঊ, ঋ, এ, ঐ, ও, ঔ, ক, খ, গ, ঘ, ঙ, চ, ছ, জ, ঝ, ঞ, ট, ঠ, ড, ঢ, ণ, ত, থ, দ, ধ, ন, প, ফ, ব, ভ, ম, য, ৰ, ল, ৱ, শ, ষ, স, হ,ক্ষ, ড়, ঢ়, য়, ৎ, ং, ঃ, ঁ
Bengali alphabet অ, আ, ই, ঈ, উ, ঊ, ঋ, এ, ঐ, ও, ঔ, ক, খ, গ, ঘ, ঙ, চ, ছ, জ, ঝ, ঞ, ট, ঠ, ড, ঢ, ণ, ত, থ, দ, ধ, ন, প, ফ, ব, ভ, ম, য, ল, শ, ষ, স, হ,ক্ষ, ড়, ঢ়, য়, ৎ, ং, ঃ, ঁ
Arabic alphabet (Alphabetical from right to left) , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , هـ, ,
Armenian alphabet Ա, Բ, Գ, Դ, Ե, Զ, Է, Ը, Թ, Ժ, Ի, Լ, Խ, Ծ, Կ, Հ, Ձ, Ղ, Ճ, Մ, Յ, Ն, Շ, Ո, Չ, Պ, Ջ, Ռ, Ս, Վ, Տ, Ր, Ց, Ւ, Փ, Ք, Օ, Ֆ
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 script А, Б, В, Г, Д, Е, Ё, Ж, З, И, Й, К, Л, М, Н, О, П, Р, С, Т, У, Ф, Х, Ц, Ч, Ш, Щ, Ъ, Ы, Ь, Э, Ю, Я
Georgian script , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
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
Hangul ㄱ ㄲ ㄴ ㄷ ㄸ ㄹ ㅁ ㅂ ㅃ ㅅ ㅆ ㅇ ㅈ ㅉ ㅊ ㅋ ㅌ ㅍ ㅎ ㅏ ㅐ ㅑ ㅒ ㅓ ㅔ ㅕ ㅖ ㅗ ㅘ ㅙ ㅚ ㅛ ㅜ ㅝ ㅞ ㅟ ㅠ ㅡ ㅢ ㅣ
Burmese က ခ ဂ ဃ င စ ဆ ဇ ဈ ည ဋ ဌ ဍ ဎ ဏ တ ထ ဒ ဓ န ပ ဖ ဗ ဘ မ ယ ရ လ ဝ သ ဟ ဠ အ
Bopomofo ㄅ ㄆ ㄇ ㄈ ㄉ ㄊ ㄋ ㄌ ㄍ ㄎ ㄏ ㄐ ㄑ ㄒ ㄓ ㄔ ㄕ ㄖ ㄗ ㄘ ㄙ ㄚ ㄛ ㄜ ㄝ ㄞ ㄟ ㄠ ㄡ ㄢ ㄣ ㄤ ㄥ ㄦ ㄧ ㄨ ㄩ ㄭ
Ogham ᚂ ᚃ ᚄ ᚅ ᚆ ᚇ ᚈ ᚉ ᚊ ᚋ ᚌ ᚍ ᚎ ᚏ ᚐ ᚑ ᚒ ᚓ ᚔ ᚕ ᚖ ᚗ ᚘ ᚙ ᚚ ᚛ ᚜
Ethiopic ሀ ለ ሐ መ ሠ ረ ሰ ሸ ቀ በ ተ ቸ ኀ ነ ኘ አ ከ ኸ ወ ዐ ዘ ዠ የ ደ ጀ ገ ጠ ጨ ጰ ጸ ፀ ፈ ፐ
Tifinagh (Amazigh alphabet) , , , , , , , , ⴳⵯ, , , , , , ⴽⵯ, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Meetei Mayek , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ꯣ, , ,

See also

References

Inline citations

  1. ^ Rogers 2005, p. 13-14.
  2. ^ Harper, Douglas. "Origin and meaning of letter". Online Etymology Dictionary. Archived from the original on 2017-11-03.
  3. ^ Rogers 2005, p. 35.
  4. ^ Rogers 2005, p. 4.
  5. ^ Healey, J.F. (1990). The Early Alphabet. Reading the past. University of California Press. p. 7. ISBN 978-0-520-07309-8. Archived from the original on 4 August 2020. Retrieved 21 May 2019.
  6. ^ Millard 1986, p. 396
  7. ^ Rogers 2005, p. 10-11.
  8. ^ "Rules for Capitalization in German". ThoughtCo. Archived from the original on 2021-11-19. Retrieved 2022-03-15.
  9. ^ Hansard, Thomas Curson (1825). Typographia, an Historical Sketch of the Origin and Progress of the Art of Printing. p. 406. Retrieved 12 August 2015.
  10. ^ Drogin, Marc (1980). Medieval Calligraphy: Its History and Technique. Courier Corporation. p. 37. ISBN 9780486261423. Archived from the original on 2022-01-23. Retrieved 2022-03-14.

General references

Further reading