Symbolically Speaking: The Alphabet (Part 1)

Since we first learned to read and write as children, our minds made a clear distinction between pictures and words.  What we often forget, however, is that the words we write are made up of letters that were originally conceived as pictures.  (Feel free to read that sentence again, if you have to.)  Our modern letters are quite literally an “alphabet soup” of ancient Egyptian, Semitic, Greek and Roman symbols.

In this series of articles, we will explore the history of our alphabet and how each letter came to have its specific shape.  Read on to discover the surprising origins of the letters A through F.



A – The ox head

Turn an ox head upside down for a clue as to how the letter A originally got it’s shape.  The letter, which first came into use around 1800 B.C. represents an animal with antlers and translated to ancient Semitic as “ox.”






B – The house

Lie the letter “B” down for a nap and you see what resembles a house with a door, a room and a flat roof.  It was originally pronounced like our modern-day “h” and was a pictogram representing ‘shelter’ used by the Egyptians.




C – The boomerang

The letter “c” began as a Phoenician representation of a boomerang.  Simple enough, right?  But it went through several permutations by the Greeks and the Romans before finally taking the shape we know today.





D – The door

The Phoenicians’ word for ‘door’ was ‘dalet’ and they represented it with a triangle, tipped up on its side.  Later, the Greeks began using it and called it ‘delta.’  The Roman’s contribution was to soften the triangle with a semi-circle and voila — the modern day ‘D’ was born.






E – The human figure

The Semitics created the ‘E’ (although they pronounced it as “h”) to represent a human figure with two arms and a leg.  Originally, these appendages pointed to the left.  Later however, the Greeks flipped it around, and began pronouncing it as “e.”





F – The hook

Most experts agree the letter ‘f’ was originally meant as a representation of a hook, and was once pronounced as “waw.”  The Romans are credited with the modern-day look of the F, introducing the hard straight lines that we now use.


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