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What Is the History of the Latin Alphabet?

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  • Written By: Diana Bocco
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 20 August 2014
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Despite being one of the basic things we need in daily life, few of us rarely think about the Latin alphabet: where does it come from, how did it get to be where it is now, who decided the letters to include, who invented it? The name of the Latin alphabet comes from the combination of the Greek words "alpha" and "beta".

The first writing systems did not have a proper alphabet, but were rather similar to Asian languages such as Chinese, where each symbol represents a word rather than a letter. These alphabets date back to 3500 BC, when the Sumerians and the Egyptians came up with a system of writings that included hieroglyphs and wedge-shaped symbols. The first alphabet per se was invented by the Phoenicians circa 1000 BC. This is now considered the origin of the Latin alphabet as we know it, although there were some notable differences. For starters, the Phoenician alphabet did not have vowels, and it was also relatively shorter at 22 letters. The Phoenician alphabet was phonetically-based.

The Latin alphabet as we know it was born with the Etruscans, in the Roman Republic times, around the 5th century BC. As the Roman Empire extended throughout Europe, so did the Latin alphabet, eventually reaching all the way to Romania and England. Throughout the following centuries, changes were made to the Latin alphabet, until it eventually reached the form it has today.

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Cursive writing and lower case letters did not exist until the Middle Ages, and many letters did originally double duty, standing for more than one sound. The letter W was introduced in the 14th century; the letter J did not became part of the Latin alphabet until the 1600s; and the letter V only did so by the end of the 18th century. The Latin alphabet has remained constant after that, although there are experts who suggest it could be improved by replacing some of the letters by other, more phonetic alternatives.

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Reminiscence
Post 6

@AnswerMan- I don't know if I buy into your chisel theory or not. The Greek alphabet had its share of curved letters, and a stone mason would have had to carve them, too. Maybe the Etruscans had more of an influence on the actual Latin alphabet font than the Greeks did.

AnswerMan
Post 5

I remember discussing the Latin alphabet in my high school Latin class and we decided it was designed because of the chisel. All of the letters in the original Latin alphabet could be chiseled out with straight lines. That explains why the ancient Romans did not use the letter J, for example. Dotting a letter like "i" wouldn't be easy, either. I don't know if our theory was historically accurate or not, but it made sense.

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