Where Do Our Letters Come From?
What are you reading here? The obvious answer is English, but that’s only partly true. What you are really reading is a series of arbitrary characters strung together to approximate spoken English. Spoken language is hardwired into our brains. It is the defining feature that makes us human. Writing, on the other hand, is an artificial construct.
So where did we get our letters? Like most (arguably all) languages, English adopted its script, more or less clumsily, from a foreign language. In our case, that foreign language was Latin. The Romans had, in turn, adapted the alphabet of the Greeks, who in turn got it from the Phoenicians, a seafaring people of the Levant whose 22 letters were the germ of all the world’s alphabets (including Arabic, Persian, and even Indian scripts).
Interestingly, though Britannia was a province of the Roman Empire for nigh on half a millennium, the Anglo-Saxons adopted the Latin alphabet only centuries after its fall. Before converting to Christianity, our forebears (at least, the few who could write) wrote in runes, the eerie, angular script of ancient Germanic peoples. (Traditionalist Scandinavians would continue to use them well into the High Middle Ages.)
By the latter centuries of the 1st Millennium A.D., the Latin alphabet was more or less universal in Western Europe. When the jumped-up Frankish warlord Charlemagne (who was himself illiterate) tried to style himself as a new Roman emperor, standardising a new Latin script was at the core of his cultural agenda.
The most significant innovation of the 9th Century Carolingian Renaissance was minuscule (i.e., lowercase) letters. Classical Latin, like Greek and most other alphabets, had only one case. That most Latin textbooks and religious texts are largely lowercase is an anachronism- you will never see those letters on ancient monuments.
It is to Charlemagne’s scholars that we also owe the letter J. It was originally a form of I, and its somewhat confused heritage is reflected in the broad range of ways languages use it. Germanic and Slavic languages keep closest to the original version, using it basically the way English speakers do Y (a letter that the Romans used only for foreign words, e.g., Syria). In Spain, J fills in for H, which is silent in modern Spanish; Italians do not use it at all. English and French have both invented have invented their own unique uses.
The Middle Ages also saw the resurgence of the letter K. The Romans replaced the Greek Kappa with C (C also gobbled up G in many cases). Their Romance-speaking descendants still use it only in loan words. But Germanic languages prefer to have the harder alternative.
As anyone who has learned to read English knows, our spelling is pretty eccentric. This is partly because Latin is a foreign alphabet: Spanish and Italian are far more phonetic (the same issue exists in Farsi, which uses an adaptation of Arabic, and many other languages). But the issue is exacerbated by the fact that English orthography was standardised at the same time as the language was undergoing a major flux in the way it is pronounced.
From roughly 1400 to 1700, the Great Vowel Shift transformed English. Before this shift, “boat” was pronounced “boot,” “out” was “oot,” “bite” was “beet,” and so on. (Anyone familiar with Scotland will notice that the shift did not reach far over the border; modern Scots sound much more like Middle English speakers). It is not too unusual for written languages to fossilise such anachronisms. Written French is pretty close to other Romance languages, but the kinship fades dramatically in conversation as speakers nasalise or swallow half their consonants. Likewise, English spelling still features a lot of terminal Rs that English people have not pronounced since the 19th Century.
It is amusingly illustrative to observe how the way we write today is so much better-suited to the English of the 16th or 17th Centuries. There are several rhymes from Shakespeare that sound bizarre to modern ears. I was recently reading I Am As I Am, a Renaissance era poem by Sir Thomas Wyatt. A few selections:
I lead my life indifferently,
I mean nothing but honestly,
And though folks judge diversely,
I am as I am and so will I die.
… Divers do judge as they do true
Some of pleasure and some of woe…
It is a lovely poem with a potent message (especially for someone who was beheaded for disagreeing with Henry VIII), but its rhyme scheme falls apart today.
By the 19th Century, English writing had reached its more or less modern form. The standard font was simplified, though “Old English” calligraphy is still prevalent in certain contexts, for example in the mastheads of newspapers like the New York Times. (German used its own distinctive font until 1941, which is quite hard to read. When I visited family in Hamburg and tried to read some of my great-great grandfather’s letters from the front in World War I, I could hardly decipher anything.)
A final major shift in the way we write has taken place during our lifetimes. For centuries, penmanship was a key skill for any literate person. When I was in school, we were still forced to learn cursive; we were assured, as were so many previous generations of restless kids, that we would use it for the rest of our lives. I almost never do. My brother, who is four years younger than I am (and a university English student), cannot even read it. Those of us born before 2000 may come to feel like the last generation of English speakers who had to learn runes.