Latin alphabet

Last updated

Abecedarium latinum clasicum.svg
Script type
Time period
c. 700 BC present
Official scriptwestern Roman Republic and Roman Empire (with Greek alphabet used in the east)
Languages Latin
Related scripts
Parent systems
Child systems
Numerous Latin alphabets; also more divergent derivations such as Osage
Sister systems
ISO 15924
ISO 15924 Latn(215),Latin
Unicode alias
See Latin characters in Unicode
 This article contains phonetic transcriptions in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.For the distinction between [ ], / / and  , see IPA § Brackets and transcription delimiters.

The Latin alphabet, also known as the Roman alphabet, is the collection of letters originally used by the ancient Romans to write the Latin language. Largely unaltered with the exception of additions (the letters J, U, and W) and extensions (such as diacritics), it forms the Latin script that is used to write many modern European languages, including English and many modern Asian languages, including Malay, Indonesian and Modern Standard Syloti (MSS). [1] With modifications, it is also used for other alphabets, such as the Vietnamese alphabet. Its modern repertoire is standardised as the ISO basic Latin alphabet.



The term Latin alphabet may refer to either the alphabet used to write Latin (as described in this article) or other alphabets based on the Latin script, which is the basic set of letters common to the various alphabets descended from the classical Latin alphabet, such as the English alphabet. These Latin-script alphabets may discard letters, like the Rotokas alphabet, or add new letters, like the Danish and Norwegian alphabets. Letter shapes have evolved over the centuries, including the development in Medieval Latin of lower-case, forms which did not exist in the Classical period alphabet.


The Latin alphabet evolved from the visually similar Etruscan alphabet, which evolved from the Cumaean Greek version of the Greek alphabet, which was itself descended from the Phoenician alphabet, which in turn derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs. [2] The Etruscans ruled early Rome; their alphabet evolved in Rome over successive centuries to produce the Latin alphabet. During the Middle Ages, the Latin alphabet was used (sometimes with modifications) for writing Romance languages, which are direct descendants of Latin, as well as Celtic, Germanic, Baltic and some Slavic languages. With the age of colonialism and Christian evangelism, the Latin script spread beyond Europe, coming into use for writing indigenous American, Australian, Austronesian, Austroasiatic and African languages. More recently, linguists have also tended to prefer the Latin script or the International Phonetic Alphabet (itself largely based on the Latin script) when transcribing or creating written standards for non-European languages, such as the African reference alphabet.

Signs and abbreviations

Although Latin did not use diacritical marks, signs of truncation of words (often placed above or at the end of the truncated word) were very common. Furthermore, abbreviations or smaller overlapping letters were often used. This was due to the fact that if the text was engraved on stone, the number of letters to be written was reduced, while if it was written on paper or parchment, it saved precious space. This habit continued even in the Middle Ages. Hundreds of symbols and abbreviations exist, varying from century to century. [3]



It is generally believed that the Latin alphabet used by the Romans was derived from the Old Italic alphabet used by the Etruscans. [4] That alphabet was derived from the Euboean alphabet used by the Cumae, which in turn was derived from the Phoenician alphabet.[ citation needed ]

Old Italic alphabet

The Duenos inscription, dated to the 6th century BC, shows the earliest known form of the Old Latin alphabet. Duenos inscription.jpg
The Duenos inscription, dated to the 6th century BC, shows the earliest known form of the Old Latin alphabet.
Old Italic alphabet

Archaic Latin alphabet

Archaic Latin alphabet
As Old Italic𐌀𐌁𐌂𐌃𐌄𐌅𐌆𐌇𐌉𐌊𐌋𐌌𐌍𐌏𐌐𐌒𐌓𐌔𐌕𐌖𐌗

Old Latin alphabet

Latin included 21 different characters. The letter C was the western form of the Greek gamma, but it was used for the sounds /ɡ/ and /k/ alike, possibly under the influence of Etruscan, which might have lacked any voiced plosives. Later, probably during the 3rd century BC, the letter Z – not needed to write Latin properly – was replaced with the new letter G, a C modified with a small vertical stroke, which took its place in the alphabet. From then on, G represented the voiced plosive /ɡ/, while C was generally reserved for the voiceless plosive /k/. The letter K was used only rarely, in a small number of words such as Kalendae , often interchangeably with C.

Old Latin alphabet

Classical Latin alphabet

After the Roman conquest of Greece in the 1st century BC, Latin adopted the Greek letters Y and Z (or readopted, in the latter case) to write Greek loanwords, placing them at the end of the alphabet. An attempt by the emperor Claudius to introduce three additional letters did not last. Thus it was during the classical Latin period that the Latin alphabet contained 21 letters and 2 foreign letters:

Classical Latin alphabet
Letter A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X Y Z
Latin name (majus)áéefelemenóqeresixꟾ graecazéta
Transliterationāēefīelemenō eres ūix ī Graecazēta
Latin pronunciation (IPA)beːkeːdeːɛfɡeːhaːkaːɛlɛmɛnpeːkuːɛrɛsteːiks ˈɡraɪkaˈdzeːta
The apices in this first-century inscription are very light. (There is one over the
o in the first line.) The vowel I is written taller rather than taking an apex. The interpuncts are comma-shaped, an elaboration of a more typical triangular shape. From the shrine of the Augustales at Herculaneum. Inscription displaying apices (from the shrine of the Augustales at Herculaneum).jpg
The apices in this first-century inscription are very light. (There is one over the ó in the first line.) The vowel I is written taller rather than taking an apex. The interpuncts are comma-shaped, an elaboration of a more typical triangular shape. From the shrine of the Augustales at Herculaneum.

The Latin names of some of these letters are disputed; for example, H may have been called [ˈaha] or [ˈaka] . [5] In general the Romans did not use the traditional (Semitic-derived) names as in Greek: the names of the plosives were formed by adding /eː/ to their sound (except for K and Q, which needed different vowels to be distinguished from C) and the names of the continuants consisted as a rule either of the bare sound, or the sound preceded by /e/.

The letter Y when introduced was probably called "hy" /hyː/ as in Greek, the name upsilon not being in use yet, but this was changed to i Graeca ("Greek i") as Latin speakers had difficulty distinguishing its foreign sound /y/ from /i/. Z was given its Greek name, zeta. This scheme has continued to be used by most modern European languages that have adopted the Latin alphabet. For the Latin sounds represented by the various letters see Latin spelling and pronunciation; for the names of the letters in English see English alphabet.

Diacritics were not regularly used, but they did occur sometimes, the most common being the apex used to mark long vowels, which had previously sometimes been written doubled. However, in place of taking an apex, the letter i was written taller: á é ꟾ ó v́. For example, what is today transcribed Lūciī a fīliī was written lv́ciꟾ·a·fꟾliꟾ in the inscription depicted. Some letters have more than one form in epigraphy. Latinists have treated some of them especially such as , a variant of H found in Roman Gaul.

The primary mark of punctuation was the interpunct, which was used as a word divider, though it fell out of use after 200 AD.

Old Roman cursive script, also called majuscule cursive and capitalis cursive, was the everyday form of handwriting used for writing letters, by merchants writing business accounts, by schoolchildren learning the Latin alphabet, and even emperors issuing commands. A more formal style of writing was based on Roman square capitals, but cursive was used for quicker, informal writing. It was most commonly used from about the 1st century BC to the 3rd century, but it probably existed earlier than that. It led to Uncial, a majuscule script commonly used from the 3rd to 8th centuries AD by Latin and Greek scribes. Tironian notes were a shorthand system consisting of thousands of signs.

New Roman cursive script, also known as minuscule cursive, was in use from the 3rd century to the 7th century, and uses letter forms that are more recognizable to modern eyes; a, b, d, and e had taken a more familiar shape, and the other letters were proportionate to each other. This script evolved into a variety of regional medieval scripts (for example, the Merovingian, Visigothic and Benevantan scripts), to be later supplanted by the Carolingian minuscule.

Medieval and later developments

De chalcographiae inventione (1541, Mainz) with the 23 letters. J, U and W are missing. Ioanne Arnoldo 1541.PNG
De chalcographiae inventione (1541, Mainz) with the 23 letters. J, U and W are missing.
Jeton from Nuremberg, c. 1553 Rekenaar 1553.jpg
Jeton from Nuremberg, c.1553

It was not until the Middle Ages that the letter W (originally a ligature of two V s) was added to the Latin alphabet, to represent sounds from the Germanic languages which did not exist in medieval Latin, and only after the Renaissance did the convention of treating I and U as vowels, and J and V as consonants, become established. Prior to that, the former had been merely allographs of the latter.[ citation needed ]

With the fragmentation of political power, the style of writing changed and varied greatly throughout the Middle Ages, even after the invention of the printing press. Early deviations from the classical forms were the uncial script, a development of the Old Roman cursive, and various so-called minuscule scripts that developed from New Roman cursive, of which the insular script developed by Irish literati and derivations of this, such as Carolingian minuscule were the most influential, introducing the lower case forms of the letters, as well as other writing conventions that have since become standard.

The languages that use the Latin script generally use capital letters to begin paragraphs and sentences and proper nouns. The rules for capitalization have changed over time, and different languages have varied in their rules for capitalization. Old English, for example, was rarely written with even proper nouns capitalized, whereas Modern English writers and printers of the 17th and 18th century frequently capitalized most and sometimes all nouns, [6] e.g. in the preamble and all of the United States Constitution: We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. This is still systematically done in modern German.

See also

Related Research Articles

A, or a, is the first letter and the first vowel letter of the Latin alphabet, used in the modern English alphabet, and others worldwide. Its name in English is a, plural aes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Alphabet</span> Set of letters used to write a given language

An alphabet is a standard set of letters written to represent particular sounds in a spoken language. Specifically, letters correspond to phonemes, the categories of sounds that can distinguish one word from another in a given language. Not all writing systems represent language in this way: a syllabary assigns symbols to spoken syllables, while logographies assign symbols to words, morphemes, or other semantic units.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Aramaic alphabet</span> Script used to write the Aramaic language

The ancient Aramaic alphabet was used to write the Aramaic languages spoken by ancient Aramean pre-Christian tribes throughout the Fertile Crescent. It was also adopted by other peoples as their own alphabet when empires and their subjects underwent linguistic Aramaization during a language shift for governing purposes — a precursor to Arabization centuries later — including among the Assyrians and Babylonians who permanently replaced their Akkadian language and its cuneiform script with Aramaic and its script, and among Jews, but not Samaritans, who adopted the Aramaic language as their vernacular and started using the Aramaic alphabet, which they call "Square Script", even for writing Hebrew, displacing the former Paleo-Hebrew alphabet. The modern Hebrew alphabet derives from the Aramaic alphabet, in contrast to the modern Samaritan alphabet, which derives from Paleo-Hebrew.

Epsilon is the fifth letter of the Greek alphabet, corresponding phonetically to a mid front unrounded vowel IPA:[e̞] or IPA:[ɛ̝]. In the system of Greek numerals it also has the value five. It was derived from the Phoenician letter He . Letters that arose from epsilon include the Roman E, Ë and Ɛ, and Cyrillic Е, È, Ё, Є and Э.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">F</span> 6th letter of the Latin alphabet

F, or f, is the sixth letter of the Latin alphabet, used in the modern English alphabet, the alphabets of other western European languages and others worldwide. Its name in English is ef, and the plural is efs.

Gamma is the third letter of the Greek alphabet. In the system of Greek numerals it has a value of 3. In Ancient Greek, the letter gamma represented a voiced velar stop IPA:[ɡ]. In Modern Greek, this letter normally represents a voiced velar fricative IPA:[ɣ], except before either of the two front vowels, where it represents a voiced palatal fricative IPA:[ʝ]; while /g/ in foreign words is instead commonly transcribed as γκ).

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Palaeography</span> Study of handwriting and manuscripts

Palaeography (UK) or paleography is the study and academic discipline of the analysis of historical writing systems, the historicity of manuscripts and texts, subsuming deciphering and dating of historical manuscripts, including the analysis of historic handwriting, signification and printed media. It is primarily concerned with the forms, processes and relationships of writing and printing systems as evident in a text, document or manuscript; and analysis of the substantive textual content of documents is a secondary function. Included in the discipline is the practice of deciphering, reading, and dating manuscripts, and the cultural context of writing, including the methods with which writing and printing of texts, manuscripts, books, codices and tomes, tracts and monographs, etcetera, were produced, and the history of scriptoria. This discipline is important for understanding, authenticating, and dating historic texts. However, in the absence of additional evidence, it cannot be used to pinpoint exact dates.

S, or s, is the nineteenth letter of the Latin alphabet, used in the modern English alphabet, the alphabets of other western European languages and others worldwide. Its name in English is ess, plural esses.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Penmanship</span> Technique of writing with the hand

Penmanship is the technique of writing with the hand using a writing instrument. Today, this is most commonly done with a pen, or pencil, but throughout history has included many different implements. The various generic and formal historical styles of writing are called "hands" while an individual's style of penmanship is referred to as "handwriting".

The Phoenician alphabet is a consonantal alphabet used across the Mediterranean civilization of Phoenicia for most of the 1st millennium BCE. It was the first mature alphabet, and attested in Canaanite and Aramaic inscriptions found across the Mediterranean region. In the history of writing systems, the Phoenician script also marked the first to have a fixed writing direction—while previous systems were multi-directional, Phoenician was written horizontally, from right to left. It developed directly from the Proto-Sinaitic script used during the Late Bronze Age, which was derived in turn from Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The Greek alphabet has been used to write the Greek language since the late 9th or early 8th century BC. It is derived from the earlier Phoenician alphabet, and was the earliest known alphabetic script to have distinct letters for vowels as well as consonants. In Archaic and early Classical times, the Greek alphabet existed in many local variants, but, by the end of the 4th century BC, the Euclidean alphabet, with 24 letters, ordered from alpha to omega, had become standard and it is this version that is still used for Greek writing today.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Etruscan alphabet</span> Alphabet used by the Etruscans of central and northern Italy

The Etruscan alphabet used by the Etruscans, an ancient civilization of central and northern Italy, to write their language, from about 700 BC to sometime around 100 AD.

The history of the alphabet goes back to the consonantal writing system used to write Semitic languages in the Levant during the 2nd millennium BCE. Nearly all alphabetic scripts used throughout the world today ultimately go back to this Semitic script. Its first origins can be traced back to a Proto-Sinaitic script developed in Ancient Egypt to represent the language of Semitic-speaking workers and slaves in Egypt. Unskilled in the complex hieroglyphic system used to write the Egyptian language, which required a large number of pictograms, they selected a small number of those commonly seen in their surroundings to describe the sounds, as opposed to the semantic values, of their own Canaanite language. This script was partly influenced by the older Egyptian hieratic, a cursive script related to Egyptian hieroglyphs. The Semitic alphabet became the ancestor of multiple writing systems across the Middle East, Europe, northern Africa, and Pakistan, mainly through Ancient South Arabian, Phoenician and the closely related Paleo-Hebrew alphabet, and later Aramaic and the Nabatean—derived from the Aramaic alphabet and developed into the Arabic alphabet—five closely related members of the Semitic family of scripts that were in use during the early first millennium BCE.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of the Greek alphabet</span>

The history of the Greek alphabet starts with the adoption of Phoenician letter forms in the 9th–8th centuries BC during early Archaic Greece and continues to the present day. The Greek alphabet was developed during the Iron Age, centuries after the loss of Linear B, the syllabic script that was used for writing Mycenaean Greek until the Late Bronze Age collapse and Greek Dark Age. This article concentrates on the development of the alphabet before the modern codification of the standard Greek alphabet.

In a writing system, a letter is a grapheme that generally corresponds to a phoneme—the smallest functional unit of speech—though there is rarely total one-to-one correspondence between the two. An alphabet is a writing system that uses letters.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Latin script</span> Writing system based on the alphabet used by the Romans

The Latin script, also known as the Roman script, and technically Latin writing system, is an alphabetic writing system based on the letters of the classical Latin alphabet, derived from a form of the Greek alphabet which was in use in the ancient Greek city of Cumae, in southern Italy. The Greek alphabet was altered by the Etruscans, and subsequently their alphabet was altered by the Romans. Several Latin-script alphabets exist, which differ in graphemes, collation and phonetic values from the classical Latin alphabet.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of the Latin script</span> Evolution of the Roman alphabet

The Latin script is the most widely used alphabetic writing system in the world. It is the standard script of the English language and is often referred to simply as "the alphabet" in English. It is a true alphabet which originated in the 7th century BC in Italy and has changed continually over the last 2,500 years. It has roots in the Semitic alphabet and its offshoot alphabets, the Phoenician, Greek, and Etruscan. The phonetic values of some letters changed, some letters were lost and gained, and several writing styles ("hands") developed. Two such styles, the minuscule and majuscule hands, were combined into one script with alternate forms for the lower and upper case letters. Modern uppercase letters differ only slightly from their classical counterparts, and there are few regional variants.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Paleohispanic scripts</span> Writing systems used before the Latin alphabet in Iberia

The Paleohispanic scripts are the writing systems created in the Iberian Peninsula before the Latin alphabet became the main script. Most of them are unusual in that they are semi-syllabic rather than purely alphabetic, despite having supposedly developed, in part, from the Phoenician alphabet.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Archaic Greek alphabets</span> Local variants of the ancient Greek alphabet

Many local variants of the Greek alphabet were employed in ancient Greece during the archaic and early classical periods, until around 400 BC, when they were replaced by the classical 24-letter alphabet that is the standard today. All forms of the Greek alphabet were originally based on the shared inventory of the 22 symbols of the Phoenician alphabet, with the exception of the letter Samekh, whose Greek counterpart Xi (Ξ) was used only in a sub-group of Greek alphabets, and with the common addition of Upsilon (Υ) for the vowel. The local, so-called epichoric, alphabets differed in many ways: in the use of the consonant symbols Χ, Φ and Ψ; in the use of the innovative long vowel letters, in the absence or presence of Η in its original consonant function ; in the use or non-use of certain archaic letters ; and in many details of the individual shapes of each letter. The system now familiar as the standard 24-letter Greek alphabet was originally the regional variant of the Ionian cities in Anatolia. It was officially adopted in Athens in 403 BC and in most of the rest of the Greek world by the middle of the 4th century BC.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">B</span> 2nd letter of the Latin alphabet

B, or b, is the second letter of the Latin alphabet, used in the modern English alphabet, the alphabets of other western European languages and others worldwide. Its name in English is bee, plural bees.


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  2. Michael C. Howard (2012), Transnationalism in Ancient and Medieval Societies. p. 23.
  3. Cappelli, Adriano (1990). Dizionario di Abbreviature Latine ed Italiane. Milano: Editore Ulrico Hoepli. ISBN   88-203-1100-3.
  4. "Etruscan alphabet | Etruscan Writing, Ancient Scripts & Language". Britannica. Retrieved 17 October 2023.
  5. Liberman, Anatoly (7 August 2013). "Alphabet soup, part 2: H and Y". Oxford Etymologist. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 3 October 2013.
  6. Crystal, David (4 August 2003). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge University Press. ISBN   9780521530330 via Google Books.

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