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The Alphabet and U

28/01/2011

A few days ago I posted on The Trouble with U. The reason – that I had always thought U was a usurper in the Latin alphabet, a bastard ally of V, and consequently there was a problem among designers on how to treat the letter. It is a pretty undistinguished character after all. There’s not a lot one can do with it. Does it take a leg or should it be like the outlet of a toilet?

Anyhow, this got me to renew friends with a fabulous book (actually two hefty volumes) written by David Diringer, called, without a shade of modesty: The Alphabet, A Key to the History of Mankind. This masterpiece was published by Hutchinson, firstly in April 1948. I have the third edition (‘completely revised, in two volumes’) of 1968.

The volumes are arranged thus: volume one, text; volume two, illustrations.

That 1948 was significant should not go unnoticed. The second world war ended, this would have been one of the first major titles on the subject off the press. And the optimistic sentiment of the age shows in the foreword by Sir Ellis Minns (a former Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge): “If it is speech that marks man off from the beast, and the great discoveries of the use of tools, the use of fire, taming animals, tilling the ground, working metals are long strides in his progress, the invention of writing and its improvement into a practical system may fairly be taken as the step leading directly to full civilisation”.

In his introduction Diringer notes (and this will be worthy of following-up): “On June 8, 1959, the present author founded in Cambridge (England) the Alphabet Museum and Seminar – now partly transferred to Tel Aviv – a main object being to collect and assemble all the material relating to the history of writing”. What happened to that?

He also refers to a branch of learning devoted to the history of the alphabet then gaining ground in the US and called, unhappily he thought, ‘alphabetology’.

Anyhow, all that is preface to the origin of U.

Diringer notes that the alphabet we are familiar with derives from Etruscan: “The importance of the Etruscans…cannot be overestimated,” he writes. “The Etruscans, an ancient people of uncertain origin and ethnic and linguistic affinities who were called by the Romans Etrusci (hence the name Etruscans) or, more commonly, Tusci (hence the modern name of Tuscany), and by the Greeks Tyrsenoi or Tyrrhenoi (hence the name Tyrrhenian Sea), were the leading power in Italy in the first half of the first millenium BC; an Etruscan dynasty reigned in Rome from the last decades of the seventh century to the end of the sixth century BC.”

[As an aside, when I was a student of archaeology at Cambridge in the 1980s I spent two long, hot summers in the Umbrian town of Gubbio, helping excavate an Etruscan site. I remember us finding the skeleton of a small child/baby; as well as tiny, bronze votive offerings, always a human-like figure with an enlarged phallus.]

By about 400BC, Diringer continues, the ‘classical’ Etruscan alphabet had evolved, with 20 letters, being four vowels, A, E, I, U, and 16 consonants, being G, V, Z,H,TH,L, M,N, P, SAN, R, S, T, PH, KH, F). This evolution was from an eighth century BC alphabet formed of 26 letters, which had been reduced to 23 by the fifth century.

When the Romans got going they adopted 21 of the Etruscans 26 (from the eighth century), rejecting, among others, U. It wasn’t until the Middle Ages, notes Diringer, that U, together with W and J were added.  (Y and Z were added after the conquest of Greece in the first century BC.)

There, in the proverbial, nutshell you have it. But I haven’t yet done with U….

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