An Archive of Alphabetical Possibilities - Lecture by John Vernon Lord
The Alphabet ;
A brief outline history of the alphabet
Letters are the conventional marks or visible signs of the elemental
sounds of spoken language. A row of letters can be arranged in different
combinations to describe everything that exists and every product of
the imagination. The alphabet is one of the greatest triumphs of the
human mind. It was not invented by a committee or a conference! In the
beginning writing was pictorial. It began with ideograms, which developed
into phonograms The first attempts to convey ideas in written form were
made by the Sumerians about 3000 BC. Small pictures were drawn on wet
clay which was then baked. These pictures eventually became conventionalised
wedge-shaped symbols, known as cuneiform. Cuneiform had reached Egypt
by 2100 BC and here it developed into a complex system which consisted
of hundreds of hieroglyphic symbols inscribed on clay, papyrus, granite
and limestone. The Phoenicians adapted this `alphabet' and took it to
Greece, where the Greeks reduced it to a more manageable set of characters.
In Northern Italy the Etruscans adopted the Greek alphabet. As far as
more recent history is concerned the Roman alphabet came from Greece
by way of the Etruscans. In the Latin alphabet the letter `G' was designed
to replace the Greek letter `Z' (which had little value to the Romans).The
letter `R' evolved as a variation of `P'. The Latin alphabet contained
ABCDEFGHI KLMNOPQRST V X
(missing ones = (J) (U) (W) (Y)( Z)
J, U, W, Y and Z had yet to be incorporated into the `modern' Western
alphabet. The Greek letters `Y' and `Z' were added at the end of the
Latin alphabet during the first century BC, following the Roman conquest
of Greece (in order to accommodate the `borrowed' Greek word sounds.
`J', `U' and `W' were added during the Middle Ages to complete our present
day alphabet of 26 letters. `J' was an `outgrowth' of `I' and used to
give a sound of greater consonant force, particularly as the first letter
of some words. `U' and `W' are variants of `V' which was being used
for two different sounds in medieval England. `V' was introduced to
give a soft vowel sound as opposed to the harder consonant sound of
`V'. `W' began as a ligature. Two `V' letterforms were joined into `VV'
to represent `double U' in 12th-century England. • The Letters
of the Alphabet
The first letter of the alphabet. This letter was modified from the
Hebrew (aleph = ox), which was meant to indicate the outline of an ox's
head. Among the Egyptians `A' is denoted by the hieroglyphic which represents
the ibis. `A' is one of the five vowels. Consider pronunciations of
`A' as in: aardvark, Canaan, Aesop, aboard, father, rare, make, encyclopaedia,
water, village, Thames, company, China, pass. Think of the divergence
in the pronunciation of such words as castle, grass, and after etc.
The second letter of the alphabet. This letter is the outline of a house.
It is called in Hebrew beth (a house). In Egyptian hierology this letter
is a sheep. Consider pronunciations of `B' as in: ball, bounce, dumb,
club, amble, babble, subtle.
The third letter of the alphabet. This letter is the outline of the
hollow of the hand, and is called in Hebrew caph (the hollow of the
hand). Consider pronunciations of `C' as in: cat, cigar, cello, indict,
cycle, chicken, machine, fuchsia, accede, flaccid, accord, saccharine,
The fourth letter of the alphabet. This letter is the outline of a rude
archway or door, and is called in Hebrew daleth (a door).In Egyptian
hierology this letter is a person's hand. Consider pronunciations of
`D' as in: dad, baked, middle, dreadful, sadder.
The fifth letter of the alphabet. This letter represents a window, and
is called in Hebrew he (a window). `E' is one of the five vowels. It
is the most frequently used of English letters. Consider pronunciations
of `E' as in: me, men, prey, newt, ear, learn, ever, heart, queue, either,
between, where, open, fête, evening, foreign, eight, Derbyshire,
ballet, erroneous, England, rendezvous. As a final letter e is usually
silent as in `exposure' but not when borrowed from the French `fiancé'.
The sixth letter of the alphabet. Consider pronunciations of `F' as
in: fable, baffle staff.
The seventh letter of the alphabet. This letter is the outline of a
camel's head and neck, and is called in Hebrew gimel (a camel). Consider
pronunciations of `G' as in: George,nagging, edge, bandage, beige, hiccough,
cough, phlegm, gnat, high, sign, Glossop, diaphragm, gaggle, sing.
The eighth letter of the alphabet. This letter represents a style or
hedge. [I wonder if `stile' is intended here as being more connected
with boundaries etc]. It is called in Hebrew heth or cheth (a hedge).
Consider pronunciations of `H' as in: Hardie, diarrhoea, ghetto, Chris,
John. hour, honour, enough, where, who, teach, hurrah.
The ninth letter of the alphabet.This letter represents a finger, and
is called in Hebrew yod or jod (a finger). `I' is one of the five vowels.
Consider pronunciations of `I' as in: finish, fine, machine, station,
business, bird, meringue, souvenir, debris, civil, alibi, friend, view,
The tenth letter of the alphabet. This letter represents a window, and
is called in Hebrew he (a window). `J' is associated historically with
the letter `I'. Consider pronunciations of `J' as in: junk, hallelujah,
judge, Raj (similarities to g).
The eleventh letter of the alphabet. Consider pronunciations of `K'
as in: kinky, knee, cake, lock (similarities to c - think of car key
The twelfth letter of the alphabet. This letter represents an ox-goad,
and is called in Hebrew lamed (an ox-goad). Consider pronunciations
of `L' as in: Lord, could, calf,Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllandyssiliogogogoch,
long, fall, little.
The thirteenth letter of the alphabet. This letter represents the wavy
appearance of water, and is called in Hebrew mem (water). Consider pronunciations
of `M' as in: Mullen, murmuring, numb, hammer, ram.
The fourteenth letter of the alphabet. This letter represents a wriggling
eel, and is called in Hebrew nun (a fish). Consider pronunciations of
`N' as in: no, branch, singing, bank, penny, dean (mon or vin in French).
The fifteenth letter of the alphabet. This letter represents an eye,
and is called in Hebrew ain (an eye). `O' is one of the five vowels.
Consider pronunciations of `O' as in: lone, log, soul, love, son, move,
moon, poor, blood, brooch, book, touch, coat, coin, bound, couple, court,
woman, Worcester, method, choir, reservoir, do, stocco, foe, shoe, diarrhoea,
boy and more sounds.
The sixteenth letter of the alphabet. This letter is a rude outline
of a person's mouth, the upright being the neck, and is called in Hebrew
pe (the mouth). Consider pronunciations of `P' as in: preposterous,
pepper, empty, psalm, photograph, pneumatic, ptarmigan, hop.
The seventeenth letter of the alphabet. Consider pronunciations of `Q'
as in: queen, batique.
The eighteenth letter of the alphabet. Consider pronunciations of `R'
as in: rural, car, centre, aggravate, rumble, cattarrh ear, bar.
The nineteenth letter of the alphabet. Consider pronunciations of `S'
as in: salt, rose, these, sausage, sure, pleasure, island, viscount,
gas, debris, mission, hiss, dogs.
The twentieth letter of the alphabet. Its Semitic name was taw (meaning
mark or sign). Consider pronunciations of `T' as in: tone, nature, mature,
natter, listen, partial, nation, question, fast; and pronunciations
of `Th' as in: thin, mother, thyme,
The twenty-first letter of the alphabet. In the Etruscan and Latin alphabets
(descendants from the Greek) the vowel `u' was written `v'. The letter
has a close historical connection with `v' and `w'. `U' is one of the
five vowels. Consider pronunciations of `U' as in: full, truth, duke,
busy, bury, cut, guilt, language, question, liquor, biscuit, censure,
cure, burn, blackguard, blurr, suite, buoy, buy, vacuum, you, flu.
The twenty-second letter of the alphabet. This letter represents a hook,
and is called in Hebrew vav (a hook). The history of the letter is strictly
connected with that of the letter `u', from which it did not differ
in writing until the Middle Ages. Consider the pronunciation of `V'
(which is one of the few English letters of which the sound is invariable):
hive, vast, tavern. It is never a final letter of an English word, except
for diminutives, such as Slav and lav.
The twenty-third letter of the alphabet, which only appeared in the
11th century. The sign `v' - which at the time had also the value of
`u' - was doubled into the sign vv (called `double vay' in Norman French
and `double u' in English. Consider pronunciations of `W' as in: two,
sword, wreck and write; who, whole and whom (where it is silent); what
and which; war, water, west, slow.
The twenty-fourth letter of the alphabet. Ambrose Bierce considered
`X' to be a needless letter in the alphabet. Consider pronunciations
of `X' as in: exit, examine, six, noxious, anxious, luxurious, xerography.
The twenty-fifth letter of the alphabet. `Y' sometimes takes on the
role of a vowel (as in `my', `Myrtle', `Cyril', `Beryl', `Yggdrasil'
[the legendary triple-rooted ash tree] and `xylem' [a woody tissue],
for instance). Also consider pronunciations of `Y' as in: you, yes,
try, fly, symbol, mystic, colony, stupefy, ye, rye, canyon.
The twenty-sixth and last letter of the alphabet. Consider pronunciations
of `Z' as in: zealous, pizza, puzzle, buzz, rendezvous.
The languages with most speakers are - Mandarin Chinese 788 million,
English 420 million, Hindi (300 million), Spanish 296 million, and Russian
The proportionate use of letters
The proportionate use of letters in the English language, according
to Brewer (page 746), is as follows:
e = 1,000..........m = 272
t = 770........... f = 236
a = 728...........w = 190
i = 704...........y = 184
s = 680...........p = 168
o = 672..........g = 168
n = 670...........b = 158
h = 540..........v = 120
r = 528..........k = 88
d = 392...........j = 55
l = 360...........q = 50
u = 296...........x = 46
c = 280..........z = 22
Consonants 5,977. Vowels 3,400 The proportion of initial letters
is very different and is as follows:
S = 1,194........ R = 291
C = 937 .......... W = 272
P = 804........... G = 266
A = 574 ...........U = 228
T = 571........... O = 206
D = 505 ...........V = 172
B = 463 ..........N = 153
M = 439 ..........J = 69
F = 388 ..........Q = 58
I = 377 ..........K = 47
E = 340 ..........Y = 23
H = 308 ..........Z = 18
L = 298 ..........X = 4
E is the most common letter (except in initials)
and r, s, t, d are the most common final letters.
A note on the shape of letters and numerals letters ............. capital
letters............. lower case letters
straight lines.............AEFHIKLMNTVWXYZ iklvwxyz
curved lines............. BCDGJOPQRSU abcdefghjmnopqrstu
numbers straight lines .............147 curved lines............. 0235689
The following four sentences contain all the letters of the English
A quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog (33 letters),
Pack my box with five dozen liquor jugs (32),
Quick wafting zephyrs vex bold Jim (29),
Waltz, nymph, for quick jigs vex Bud (28).
Ezra vii, 21 contains all the letters, except for J, of the English
language. `And I even I Artaxerxes the king, do make a decree to all
the treasurers which are beyond the river, that whatsoever Ezra the
priest, the scribe of the law of the God of heaven, shall require of
you, it be done speedily,' ... There are countless permutations of juxtaposed
relationships between letters which affect both their physical shape
and the influence on the sound.
When I was at school the longest word we were told about was antidisestablishmentarianism
(28 letters). It means, `opposition to the idea that the Church should
cease to be formally recognised by the state'. The longest word in the
Oxford English Dictionary is: floccinaucinihilipilification (29 letters).
It means, `the action or habit of estimating something as worthless'.
Here is another long word in Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost (v.
1): `Thou art not so long by the head as honorificabilitudinitatibus'
(27 letters) . It is interesting that the word alternates vowels and
(59 letters) is the name of a Welsh village in Anglesea. It means `The
church of St Mary in a hollow of white hazel, near to the rapid whirlpool,
and to St Tisilio's church, near to a red cave". Wales also boasts
of having a city-district called Llwchwr, which has no consonants.
Here is the sound of the thunderclap fall in the third paragraph of
James Joyce's Finnegans Wake (1939): bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk
! (100 letters)
Consonants and vowels
`Knightsbridge', a district in London, is remarkable for having six
consecutive consonants (ghtsbr). `Eschscholtzia' (a Californian poppy)
also has six consecutive consonants (schsch). `Sequoia' (a Californian
conifer) has all the vowels; so does `unquestionably', which has the
`y' letter - considered by some to be also a type of vowel. Oiseau (bird)
is a French example of a word with all the vowels contained within it.
Strengths is a nine-letter word containing only one vowel. Aiaiai is
the Latin name of the roseate spoonbill. The word `typewriter' is typed
by using only the top row of letters on the keyboard. One here for Helen,
in case she hasn't got it! `The skunk thought the stump stunk, but the
stump thunk the skunk stunk'.
punishment = nine thumps; conversation = voices rant on; therapeutics
= apt is the cure; anagrams = ars magna (Latin for `great art'); the
eyes = they see; the Leaning Tower of Pisa = what a foreign stone pile!
a decimal point = I'm a dot in place; a sentence of death = faces on
at the end; Spring, summer, autumn, winter = "Time's running past,"
we murmur; countryside = no city dust here; delicatessen = ensliced
eats; committees = cost me time; Florence Nightingale = Flit on, cheering
angel; the Encyclopaedia Britannica = a dictionary can be elephantic;
radar; level; step on no pets; pull up if i pull up; was it a rat I
saw? - God! a dog! - Draw, O coward! - Are we not drawn onwards, we
Jews, drawn onward to new era?
Here's a fine example 7 x 7 square:
P R E P A R E
R E M O D E L
E M U L A T E
P O L E M I C
A D A M A N T
R E T I N U E
E L E C T E D
John V. Lord
A Bibliography of books about the Alphabet
Dictionary of Phrase and Fable by The Rev. E. Cobham Brewer, LL.D.,
Cassell and Co, London, 1897.
Sign and Design; The Psychogenetic Source of the Alphabet by Alfred
Kallir, Vernum, Richmond, Surrey, 1961.
The Alphabet by David Diringer, London, 1948.
The Alphabet by Isaac Taylor (2 volumes), 1883..