The Roman alphabet (since -600), also called the Latin alphabet, was the set of letters the Romans used to write Latin. Spread by Roman and Western empires and by Catholic and Protestant religion, in 2015 it is now the most common form of writing in the world, with over 1.9 billion users.
Through the ages:
In -2000 in Egypt the first alphabet was invented. Meant as a poor man’s hieroglyphics, it turned out to be a stroke of genius.
By -1000, Phoenicians were using a simpler form of it.
In -800, the Greeks began to write their language using the Phoenician alphabet, but it did not quite fit. It had no vowels – and vowels in Greek are hugely important. So they took Phoenician letters they did not need and made them into vowels. They became the Roman A, E, I, O and U.
In -700, the Etruscans began to write their language using the Greek alphabet of southern Italy, but it did not quite fit. They did not need omicron (o-sound), beta (b-sound), delta (d-sound) or gamma (g-sound). They threw out the first three and made gamma into C and gave it a k-sound. Etruscan had three kinds of k-sounds, which became the Roman C, K and Q.
In -600, the Romans began to write Latin using the Etruscan alphabet, but it did not quite fit. By -250 they had borrowed back omicron, beta and delta from Greek, making them O, B and D. They also needed a g-sound. Since gamma was being used as C, they made Z into G! They also started to favour writing left to right.
By +113, when Trajan’s column was put up in Rome, letters had their present-day form. Romans had borrowed Y and Z from Greek to write Greek words. They wrote U as V.
By 300, parchment was common. Smoother than papyrus, it changed the shape of letters, making them smaller, more rounded and requiring fewer strokes, a style called uncial.
In the 800s, Charlemagne made Carolingian minuscule the common way to write in western Europe. It was Alcuin’s new and improved form of uncial, easier to write, easier to read. It looks just like lower-case letters – because that is what it will become.
In the early 1400s, humanists in Florence modelled their handwriting on Charlemagne’s.
In the late 1400s, the printing press came to Italy. Unlike Gutenberg, who used heavy Gothic letters, printers in Italy, like Nicolas Jenson and Aldus Manutius, modelled their lower-case letters on humanist handwriting and upper-case letters on Trajan’s column. It becomes the most common way to print Roman letters and still is.
In the 1500s and 1600s, printing made spelling more fixed. That led to J, a form of I, becoming the consonant form of I. Likewise V became the consonant form of U. But they did not become completely independent letters till Noah Webster’s dictionary of 1828.
In 2015, on this blog in English, the Roman alphabet looked like this:
upper case: ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ
lower case: abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz
W is UU made into one letter by printers in the late 1400s.
– Abagond, 2015, 2016.
Source: Mainly “Language Visible” (2003) by David Sacks.
- printing press
- Aldus Manutius
- The Economist