Monday, November 22, 2010

Secret Origins: A

I said I’d do it. And here it is!

What are the secrets and mysteries of the letter a? You know, the stuff they don’t teach on Sesame Street?

For one thing, the letter A came from an ox. What? Really? Yes, really : ).

Here is a chart of A’s evolution. It’s a little unclear, but basically A evolves from the Latin A, which is close to the Greek A (alpha). In Hebrew, the word for ox is aleph, obviously close to alpha despite the difference in the symbols. Even before that was the language of the Phoenicians, who had a similar word for ox: alep. As you can see, the symbol is similar to a sideways A, and in other cases was an A with the line across at an angle. And if you go back to Proto-Sinaitic, the symbol for ox is pretty much a picture of an ox! The Ancient Egyptians, famous picto-symbologists, also used a picture for the word ox.

Like words, letters were also changed when they were adopted by different languages. The Phoenician language didn’t have vowels and when the Greeks started speaking it, they needed something for their “ah” and “ay” sounds.

The Hebrew A (aleph/ox) comes from Phoenician, but what prompted the Phoenician’s to use alep (ox)? For them, alep meant a glottal stop. If you’re like me when I first read this, you have no idea what that means. A glottal stop is the stop in the back of the throat before a consonant. Say “The cancer isn’t terminal.” Between the end of isn’t and the beginning of terminal is a glottal stop. They wouldn’t write “stacked.” It would be something like “st’ ked.”

Anyway, Phoenician came directly from Proto-Canaanite. If you go to this website here and scroll down to the alphabet chart, you can see that the main difference between Proto-Canaanite and Phoenician is the symbols. Proto-Canaanite (Proto-Sinaitic on the first chart I linked to) is a lot closer to Egyptian. The Ancient Egyptians liked to use glyphs for words. To simplify things, in about 1700 BCE Proto-Canaanite evolved only using twenty two symbols for the consonant sounds (vowels weren’t important!). Apparently, they decided which ones to use by picking a symbol that’s word began with the consonant they were looking for. So alep— represented by an ox’s head—became the symbol for the glottal stop we now know as A.

Some excellent texts on letters are available on WikiSources, which is where I got most of this information. Used here are Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, the Letter A and the Encyclopaedia Britannica, letter A.

I also looked up stuff on the Phoenician’s language and the glottal stop. Because I care. And also, I'm a bit obsessive.


  1. Very interesting.
    Have a great day. Smiles to you.

  2. Fascinating. I actually study cunieform and Sumerian.

  3. Wow, I never realized that. I love how some of the pictographs from ancient times are so recognizable in terms of what they represent. And is it just me, but isn't the phrase "glottal stop" itself a glottal stop - too cool!!! :)



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