We’ve previously covered the history of the Latin script and how it came to life: How it evolved from the Greek alphabet, which in turn was derived from the Old Phoenician writing system that stemmed from Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Even though the Latin alphabet turned out to be quite a convenient tool for writing in many languages, it didn’t always look the same as the one we’re familiar with today. In fact, a time-traveling ancient Roman who had used the first iteration of the alphabet would no longer recognize it!
Let’s take a look at how the alphabet we know and love changed and what the reasons behind those changes were. Without further ado, let’s get started!
The Latin alphabet has been in use since as early as 700 BCE, starting out as uppercase letters known as Roman square capitals. The lowercase letters evolved through cursive styles that developed in response to the need to adapt the traditionally inscribed alphabet to being written with a pen. Over the ages many different stylistic forms of each letter evolved, with some of these forms becoming a recognized subform that got used to transliterate exotic tongues. After the evolution from the Western Greek Alphabet from the Old Italic alphabets, the writing system that would later become the Latin alphabet diverged in turn from the Western Greek alphabet, getting started on its own evolutionary course. At first, it was used by the Etruscans, among others, and their alphabet was the immediate ancestor of the Roman script we know today.
Starting from the 7th century BC, 21 of the 26 archaic Etruscan letters were adapted for Old Latin — either directly from the Cumae alphabet (another writing system derived from the Greek alphabet) or via the archaic Etruscan forms. Compared to the classical Etruscan alphabet, they retained the letters B, D, K, O, Q, and X, but dropped Θ, Ś, Φ, Ψ, and F. (Etruscan V [looks more like Y in some iterations] is Latin U; Etruscan F is Latin V.)
The Old Latin alphabet consisted of 22 letters: the missing ones were J, G, U, and W. Originally, Y and Z were missing as well. However, they were later added (after several hundred years) to write Greek loanwords — which were abundant, due to ancient Rome's fondness of the Greek culture. All the other letters we’re going to discuss today emerged much later. One of them only became part of the alphabet just a few hundred years ago, so a Roman wouldn’t even understand what that symbol is or why it is necessary.
G, J, U, W: Later arrivals to the Latin alphabet
In alphabetical order:
G — “C with a dash”
The first letter that wasn’t part of the “original” alphabet was G. Initially, its functionality was covered by the letter C, which stood for the /g/ sound in some words. This, however, proved to be a major inconvenience and caused misunderstandings. As such, some scribes started adding an additional element to the letter to highlight the sound’s voiced quality (as opposed to the voiceless /k/ sound also represented by the letter C.)
J — “I with a tail”
Yet another “addition” that we all nowadays take for granted. Despite the letter’s functionality in English of representing the /dʒ/ sound, in most other languages, including German and Dutch, it stands for the /j/ sound — similar to what you hear in the word “year”.
Initially, the /j/ sound was represented by using the letter I in combination with another vowel, normally at the beginning of a word. However, as languages evolved, so did their sounds, and this quirky little I started appearing in the middle and even at the end of words. This became confusing. In order to differentiate the two sounds that this single letter could stand for — /i/ and /j/ — medieval scholars started adding a small tail to the letter I, yielding J. Now both of these sounds had a visually distinct appearance.
- IVLIVS → JVLIVS /’julius/ (Note how the 1st I is pronounced like a Y, while the second one is indeed an /i/)
- GAIVS → GAJVS /’gɑjus/
A quick comment on the letter Y
As mentioned above, this letter was added to the Latin alphabet in order to write many Greek loanwords. Even now we have some words of Greek origin written with this letter, such as system or hypnosis. However, due to the passing of centuries and English not being a Romance language, its functionality started doubling with that of the letter I.
I’m a native Russian speaker, and my language does not use Latin script. Duh (да?). As such, I have to transliterate my name each time I travel abroad or order something from a foreign online store. And this is where the connection between these three letters comes in, as I actually have a few choices about how to spell out my last name when using Roman letters. They look different, but the pronunciation remains the same in each case:
- Грязин — original Cyrillic spelling
- Gryazin — the Y spelling
- Griazin — alternative spelling
- Grjazin — Serbian/Czech-style spelling
U and W — diverged from V
These two sections had better be combined. Have you ever wondered why the letter W is called double-u despite looking more like a double-v? I know I have. So have my many students. Thankfully, I can now give an answer.
Originally, the letter U simply didn’t exist. Instead, Classical Latin relied solely on V, which stood for both the /w/ and /u/ sounds. Naturally, this caused some inconveniences. For example, juvenis (Latin for “youth”), was originally spelled= IVVENIS. Which V is a consonant? Which one a vowel? This led to many jumbled up messes and just wasn't very reader-friendly.
Over time, the initial I in such words evolved into a J, a change that simply served to clarify that this particular sound was a short semi-consonant sound (similar to the one in the English word “yogurt”). Later, the sound /w/ represented by V would split into two different sounds, /v/ and /u/, which would require different letters: over time, the edges on the vowel-sound V became more rounded, culminating in the familiar-looking letter U.
Basically, U and V used to be the same letter, which can still be noticed when looking at older texts. Perhaps you’ve seen these common examples:
- NAVTICA — instead of “nautica”
- NATVRA — instead of “natura”
As for W, it emerged from the original Latin spelling tendency of using of doubled Vs to represent — you guessed it — the /w/ sound. England is known for keeping and preserving traditions, which is why in our modern-day English alphabet the letter looking like two Vs is counterintuitively called double-u. Its name stems from the times when V and U were the same letter and shared a name. (By the way, in most Romance languages, this seeming nonsense has been resolved. The letter W is simply called “double-V”.)
A small detour
A fun fact: due to the unfamiliarity of early Russian translators with the peculiarities of Latin pronunciation, most Latin words containing the vowel-sound version of the letter V were incorrectly borrowed as being consonant-sound V. Such borrowings took place around the 15th-16th centuries, which paved the way for a tradition of inaccurate transliterations. This tradition died out only in the mid-20th century, so many Russian words borrowed from Latin look and sound slightly different from their counterparts in other languages:
- Авто (avto) — Auto
- Январь (yanvar’) — January
Diacritics / modified letters
Interestingly enough, English is one of the very few major languages that does not contain “modified” letters in its alphabet. Take a look at any other alphabet based on the Latin script, such as French, Spanish, or German, and you’ll see many letters that have strokes or dots above or underneath them. (The dots are called umlaut, and we have a separate article discussing them.) English only uses such letters when intentionally retaining the original spelling of certain loanwords. Most notably, such words come from Romance languages. You've likely seen these spelllings before:
- Chloë, Zoë — given names
However, even though those words feature “special” letters, their use is not obligatory in English. They won’t change the meaning of the word should their use be omitted, as could be the case in their “original” languages. Native speakers just accept that English spelling is generally a mess.
In French or German, however, using these modified letters (technically they're called letters with "diacritics") is a 100% must. Their absence may affect not just the sound of a word but also its meaning. For example, take a look at two German words that look nearly identical to anyone unfamiliar with the language:
- Schon — [ˈʃoːn] (similar to the name “Shawn”) — already
- Schön — [ˈʃøːn] (the vowel sound is similar to the one “i” stands for in the word “flirt”) — beautiful
Dropping the dots results in a word not just changing its pronunciation but also its part of speech. That's significant because in the case of a synthetic language like German, knowing a word's part of speech is crucial for understanding a sentence.
Not only are the diacritic symbols important, but they are also omnipresent. For example, the very word “French” (when written in French) requires such a letter:
In this word, the “tailed” C — otherwise known as the c cédille — stands for the "soft" c /s/ sound. If it were a “regular” tail-less C, the sound represented here would instead be a “hard” /k/ one, due to French spelling rules.
In some non-European languages, such as Vietnamese, or with Pinyin, an auxiliary romanization system for Mandarin Chinese, diacritics are used to represent a tone:
- Nhất (Vietnamese word for “first”) — one of the diacritics represents a sound modification, while the other stands for a tone
- Zhōngguó (中國) (Mandarin word for China) — the diacritics over the o’s represent a high tone and a rising tone, respectively
A question may arise: where did these weird symbols come from? They originally emerged during Classical Latin, which featured a distinction between long and short vowel sounds that had to be represented graphically (i.e., in writing). To do so, a small line with a stroke was placed over certain letters. Called the “apex”, it would evolve into the modern-day macron (ō, ā, ē) and acute accent (ó, á, é) symbols. Below are a few examples of how it denotes long vowels in Latin words.
- Avgvsto᷄ (August)
- Ce᷄nam (dinner)
- O᷄rna᷄ment (ornament)
The emergence of lowercase letters
This subsection could be expanded into an entire article.
Originally, all of the letters in the Latin alphabet existed only in their upper case forms. If you take a look at ancient tables and books, you’ll see no lowercase letters. It was only in Medieval times, with the rise of handwritten books, that the smaller letters were created as a simpler way of writing. Over time, the dual-case style (uppercase and lowercase) became a norm among all European languages, including those that don’t use the Latin script, such as Cyrillic-based Slavic languages and Greek.
To be a bit more precise, the tradition of dividing letters into two cases can be traced to the court of the French King Charlemagne (747-814). He was interested in spreading education and literacy among the noble class, a challenge which proved difficult partly because it might take a scholar months to complete a single manuscript (manus being latin for hand, and scriptus meaning to write.) Even when available, these manuscripts were quite inconvenient to read, as you experienced above with IVVENIS and IVLIVS.
Lowercase writing fixed both of these issues.
The "simplified" lowercase alphabet allowed scribes to produce manuscripts more quickly, and these new "dual-case" manuscripts were also easier on readers' eyes. Capital letters became reserved for special occasions, such as at the beginning of a sentence or when writing given names. In short, the mixture proved to be a win-win for everybody. (Despite this, most European languages had no capitalization rules before 1300.)
As a bonus, books at that time were considered to be works of art, and the addition of a lowercase script allowed scribes more artistic freedom. It may not be a stretch to say that our wealth of modern font varities is thanks to Charlemagne and the birth of the Latin alphabet's dual-case script.
The story of the evolution of the Latin alphabet is far more complex and intricate than what’s written here. To answer our initial question, though, an ancient Roman would not understand our modern Latin alphabet because they lacked a few letters we use, did not utilize lowercase letters, and wouldnt know what diacritics were for.
As for now, that’s it for today, folks! Have a nice day and bye!