Thursday, September 20, 2012

Secret Origins: L

 Time for another one.

Unlike some of the letters I’ve covered, the sound L is fairly common among languages. But the symbol for it? Man, is that complicated.

In Latin, L visually started out with the angle pointing more towards the bottom. Before that we have Etruscan, where the symbol is facing the other direction and looks more like an upside down numeral one. The Etruscans borrowed their alphabet from the visiting Greeks, hence spreading it to Rome where it morphed into Latin. The Greek Lambda (Λ) is again more like a triangle, while the lower case (λ) is a triangle with a tail on top. It seems like the Etruscans changed it a lot, but really it’s just the variation of writing styles between the different regions of Greece. If you look at the comparison chart here, you can see changes among the different cities. It looks like the Greeks created the capital Lambda from the Phoenician letter L, which they used for small Lambda, then dropped entirely when it was replaced by a variation on capital Lambda.

Like I said, the Greeks took their alphabet from the Phoenicians, prolific traders of pre-history who invented the earliest form of the alphabet in order to keep track of their wares. While later incarnations resemble the upside down 1 of the Etruscans, early versions of the Phoenician Lamadh are symbolically more like our C or G and when you go further back to proto-Sinaitic, it’s just a whirl (or a shepard’s crook, which is one of the translations for the Egyptian hieroglyph it was taken from). However, if you harden the points of the whirl to corners, you can see the vestiges of the triangular Lambda. You can also note the differences in another alphabetic descendant of Phoenician, Hebrew, where it showed up as Lamed (that’s lah-med, symbolized by ל). With the leftmost leg upright like that, it’s more like a lightning bolt, but it does seem similar to the proto-Sinaitic whirl.



  1. I think lambda was the first Greek letter I was introduced to. It's used to represent frequency. (Start on the Greek letters, and I go back to physics.)


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