Roman alphabet

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Simple initial definition needed: Do all these characters belong to the Roman 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

In modern times surely yes. But in Roman times some characters less. Which ones? There was no 'U', instead there was the semi-vowel 'V'. There was no 'W', although 'V' was pronounced as the modern 'W'. They didn't have the letter 'J', instead they had the semi-vowel 'I'. Because 'C' was hard in Classic Latin, 'K' was used solely in the acronyms "K." or "Kal." for "kalendae" (the first day of a month) and in words borrowed from Greek.


The Latin alphabet derives mainly from the Etruscan script. According to Hammarström (in Jensen 521), the letters for B, D, O, X hail from a Southern Italian Greek alphabet. However, there are Etruscan abecedaria with B, D, O, X (Sampson 108). Rix (203) claims that the sound values of those letters in Latin are to be attributed to Greek influence, the letters themselves were probably all present when the Romans took over the alphabet from the Etruscans (Wachter 33).

It is uncontested that the alphabet is mainly of Etruscan origin. The sound value of C proves that clearly. Etruscan had no voiced plosives, so this symbol - derived from the Greek gamma - came to stand for the unvoiced /k/ in Etruscan - as later in Latin. Jensen (521) notes that the letters C, K, Q were originally used in Latin according to Etruscan usage: C in front of /e, i/; K in front of /a/; Q in front of /u, o/. The letters thus stand for different allophones of /k/ (in the case of Latin, also /g/ and probably the phonemes /k_w/ and /g_w/ in the case of QU and GU). These spelling rules are due to the names of the letters: gamma or gemma; kappa; qoppa or quppa (Wachter 15). In Etruscan there was no /o/, so Q was used both in front of /o/ and /u/ in Latin. Y and Z were later additions taken from the Greek alphabet. G was created approximately in the 3rd century BC by Spurius Carvilius Ruga as a modification of C (Sampson 109). F (digamma) stood for /w/ in both Etruscan and Latin, but the Romans simplified the FH-/f/combination to F /f/. The semi-vowels /w, j/ and the vowels /u, u:, i, i:/ were written with the same letters, namely V and I respectively.

Use in other languages

In the course of its history, the latin alphabet was used for new languages, and therefore, some new letters and diacritics were created, e.g. the cedilla in ç (probably came from z and had originally nothing to do with c) that symbolized /ts/ in Romance or the hacek in Slavonic languages. W is a Germanic letter made up from two U's, and U and J were originally not distinguished from V and I respectively. In Old English, thorn and wynn - a Runic letter - were added. In modern Icelandic, thorn and edh are still used. The additional letters added in German are generally either special presentations of earlier ligature forms (ae -> ä, ue -> ü or sz -> ß). French adds the circumflex to record elided consonants that were present in earlier forms and are often still present in the modern English cognate forms (Old French hostel -> French hôtel = English hotel or Late Latin pasta -> Middle French paste -> French pâte & English paste).



  • Some Slavic languages use the latin alphabet rather than the Cyrillic. Among these, Polish uses a variety of ligatures with z to represent special phonetic values, and a dark l for a sound similar to w. Czech uses diacritics as in Dvořak. The Slavic regions which stayed with the Orthodox church generally use Cyrillic instead which is much closer to the Greek alphabet.
  • Jensen, Hans. 1970. Sign Symbol and Script. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd. Transl. of Die Schrift in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart. VEB Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften. 1958, as revised by the author.
  • Rix, Helmut. 1993. "La scrittura e la lingua" In: Cristofani, Mauro (hrsg.) 1993. Gli etruschi - Una nuova immagine. Firenze: Giunti. S.199-227.
  • Sampson, Geoffrey. 1985. Writing systems. London (etc.): Hutchinson.
  • Wachter, Rudolf. 1987. Altlateinische Inschriften: sprachliche und epigraphische Untersuchungen zu den Dokumenten bis etwa 150 v.Chr. Bern (etc.): Peter Lang.