Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Secret Origins: B

Welcome new friends! PK Hrezo gave me a Blogger Oscar be cause she thinks my posts are more than just ramblings from an insane mind. Shh. No one tell her the truth. Anyway, in order to keep up appearances, I'm going to tell you where the letter B came from. You would not believe how hard it is to find source material for letters.

B has many forms: B or β (Greek), ב bet (Hebrew), ب beh (Arabic), Б or б be (Cyrillic). Also, the Cyrillic letter ve looks familiar: B. B is also the symbol for a sonant labial stop. Remember the glottal stop from alef, which is taking a breath? Yeah, we’re getting into phonetics again. Sonant labial means voiced by the lips. When you pronounce B, you must use your lips. It is the symbol for the sonant labial stop because of this, meaning a B indicates you stop using your lips to pronounce something. I think.   

Anyway, look here for a more direct line of B’s creation. In Latin (modern), the language English takes its letters from, we see it as B with two humps or b with one. In Etruscan it shows up as what we know it as, but also reversed, so the two humps point left. The Greeks wrote their B quite similarly, but the early it gets the more pointed the humps are, almost like peaks.

In Hebrew, it looks quite a bit different. ב bet or beth looks more like a square with one open side. And, like alef, it has a particular meaning: house. I assume the reason the Greeks chose the word is the same as alef, as well. They wanted a symbol that began with the character they were looking to represent.

Before Hebrew was Phoenician, whose symbol for house looked a lot more like a g. But it does resemble the early Greek b, only facing the other direction. Next we get into proto-Sinaitic, whose B was pronounced bayit. And if you look at the chart, we can see its symbol is a square or a square with an open top (like a chimney! or the Arab b above). In ancient Egyptian, it was a square with a hole in the bottom. Squares are often associated with houses and I guess the hole is the doorway.

Other sources used: Old English Grammar and the Encyclopaedia Britannica.


  1. Wow. I'm totally impressed that you researched the letter B. It's like Sesame Street for grown-ups! :)

  2. Congrats on your award. That's most intriguing!!!


  3. I never knew the other life that "B" led. Shows us writers that everything has an interesting story if we dig deep enough.


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