Alphabet


The Latin (or, as it is also called, Roman) alphabet appeared in the 7th century BC as an adaptation of the Etruscan alphabet to the Latin language. The Etruscans themselves borrowed their alphabet from the Greek colonists in Italy; the origin of the Greek alphabet is traced through Phoenician scripts to the North Semitic alphabet, which was already in use in Syria and Palestine during the 12th c. BC.

There was a common spread opinion, shared even by some contemporary scholars, that the Latin characters were derived directly from the Greek ones. This hypothesis rested on the evident correspondence between the Latin alphabet and the Chalcidian variety of the western group of Greek scripts used at Cumae in Campania, southern Italy. It seems, anyway, inconsistent, because the name of the letters are clearly of Etruscan and not of Greek origin (a, be, ce, de etc. and not alpha, betha, gamma, delta etc.) and because of the specific representation in the most ancient documents of the [f] sound by the combination FH, which was peculiar to the Etruscan writing system.

The earliest inscription in Latin characters, dating from the 7th century BC, was made on golden brooch known as Praeneste Fibula (preserved now in the Museo Preistorico Etnografico Luigi Pigorini in Rome). It is written from right to left and reads:

MANIOS:MED:FHEFHAKED:NUMASIOI
(in Classical Latin: Manius me fecit Numerio)
Manius made me for Numerius.
Another inscription, dating from the end of the 7th or the beginning of the 6th century BC, was engraved on a small pillar (cippus) found in the Roman Forum. It is written vertically on the four faces of the pillar in bustrophedon style. Another inscription, probably of the 6th century BC, was discovered near the Quirinal Hill in Rome. It is known as the Duenos Vase and like the Praeneste Fibula is also written from right to left. These inscriptions are generally considered to be the oldest extant examples of the Latin alphabet.

Originally the Latin alphabet consisted of the following 21 letters:

A B C D E F Z H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X
About 250 BC the letter Z was dropped because in the Latin of this period there was not a specific sound that would require its usage. On the other hand, a new letter, G, made by adding a bar to the lower end of C, was placed in the position of Z. After the 1st century BC, when the Greek-speaking world was incorporated into the orbis Romanum, a large number of Greek words penetrated the Latin language. At the time of Cicero and Caesar the symbols Y and Z were introduced from the contemporary Greek alphabet and were placed at the end of the alphabet. Their usage was initially restricted to transliterate Greek words only, as the popular Latin name for Y i graeca suggests (this name is preserved in  modern French i grecque and modern Spanish i griega, for instance), and thay do not appear in ordinary Latin inscriptions. Thus, at the beginning of the Christian era the Latin script had 23 letters:
A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X Y Z
Three new letters were permanently added to the alphabet during the Middle Ages. The semivocal pronunciation of I and V before vowels like [j] and [w] became clearly consonantic   [dJ] and [v] respectively and this change was reflected in the writing. For long time there was a practice among the scribes to write I and V with some modifications like J and U, though they used them interchangeably for either the vowel or the consonant sound. At last this practice was conventionalized, so that U and I were written for the vowels and V and J for the consonants. Before the establishing of this conventionalization Spanish and French introduced an unpronounceable h at the beginning of words whose first letter v, followed by a vowel, was to be read [u], and in this manner there was formed a syllable and the reading of [u] and not of [v] assured; this usage is still preserved in the modern orthography, cf. Sp. huevo < L. ovum or F. huite < L. octo. W was invented by Norman scribes to represent the Anglo-Saxon sound [w] (a semivowel) and to differentiate it from the [v] sound. At the end of the 15th c. the alphabet was finally fixed as consisting of 26 letters:
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
During the Middle Ages, with the Christianization of Central and Northern Europe by the Roman Catholic Church, the Latin alphabet was adopted with some modifications to many Germanic, Slavic and Ugro-Finnic language. The late Romance languages on their part developed many new sounds as compared with the classical Latin and had also to make innovations in the writing system. The most common way of representing sounds that were missing in the classical Latin was to add diacritical marks like the diaeresis above the German vowels ü, ä, ö, the Portuguese and French cedilla in ç, the tilde on Spanish ñ and Portuguese ã and õ etc.

In the Antiquity there were two main types of Latin script, capital letters and cursive, and various mixed types that combined capitals and cursive or semicursive letters. Latin uncial script evolved from such a mixed form in the 3rd century AD.

In the Middle Ages many different Latin scripts developed from capital, cursive, and uncial forms. The round "humanistic" handwriting, used for copying books, and a more angular cursive script, used for legal and commercial purposes in Renaissance Italy, gave rise, respectively, to the roman and italic typefaces.

In the Antiquity the small letter (minuscule) did not exist, but there were several varieties of the capital and the cursive scripts. There were three varieties of the capitals:

    Inscription 
    from Pompeii 
    (1st century AD)

The cursive script (the current hand) prevailed in everyday usage and was subject of permanent modifications in order to permit greater speed. There were several varieties of the cursive, such as those of Pompeii in Italy and Alburnus Major in Dacia (modern Rosia Montana, Romania). Between the monumental and the cursive scripts there was a whole series of types that had some of the peculiarities of each group. There were lapidary mixed scripts and book semicursive scripts, and there was the early uncial, or rather semiuncial, script of the 3rd century AD, which seems to have developed into the beautiful uncial script.

The different shapes of the minuscules developed gradually through transformations of the ancient letters by the elimination of a part of the letter -- as, for instance, b from B, h from H or r from R -- or by lengthening a part of it -- for instance, d from D.

The change of the Latin writing in the course of the centuries was influenced by the nature of the tool also, primarily the pen, and the material of writing, mainly papyrus and parchment in the Antiquity and the Middle ages and paper from the 14th century onward. It was the pen, with its preference for curves, that eliminated the angular forms; it was the papyrus, and still more the parchment or vellum, and, in modern times, paper, that made these curves possible.

When the various European countries had shaken off the political authority of Rome and the learned
communities had been dissolved and their members scattered, a marked change took place in the
development of the Latin literary, or book, hand. Several national hands, styles of the Latin cursive,
assumed different features. There thus developed on the European continent and in the British Isles the
five basic national hands, each giving rise to several various hands:

At the end of the 8th century the  Carolingian (Caroline) hand developed and, after becoming the official script and literary hand of the Frankish Empire, developed as the main book hand of Western Europe in the following two centuries. The combination of the capital and small letters is attributed mainly to the Carolingian script.

In the course of the next centuries, various book hands or chart hands and other cursive scripts developed from the Carolingian style. In the late 12th century and during the next two centuries the letters gradually became angular in shape; this resulted from the pen being held in a position that made a slanting stroke. The new hand, termed  black letter or Gothic, was employed mainly in northwestern Europe,
including England, until the 16th century. It is still used, though rarely, in Germany.
 



 


Though the Gothic was also used in Italy, the Italians preferred a rounder type, called littera antiqua. During the 15th century the round, neat, humanistic or Renaissance hand was introduced in Florence and was employed for literary productions, while the needs of everyday life were met by an equally beautiful, though not as clearly legible, cursive hand. The two styles developed into two main varieties:

The classical Roman character was adopted for the majuscules. This majuscule writing, along with the Roman-type minuscule and the italic, spread all over the world from the 16th century onward.


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© Zdravko Batzarov