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by Paula LaRocque on February 11th, 2011

The English alphabet seems completely different from some other languages—Chinese characters, for example, or Egyptian hieroglyphs.  But experts in the origin of our alphabet say the ABCs, too, were originally tied to pictures, difficult as that may be to imagine now.

The great distinction among writing systems is whether a symbol stands for a sound or for a thing.  A symbol in some writing systems is not a letter—it may represent, as I just suggested, the whole word.  So a sequence of symbols is not necessarily an alphabet, in which you can arrange any number of individual symbols (letters) together to make one word.  It may just be a sequence of symbols.

Let’s say, for example, that a simplified figure with a flat top and four legs represented a table in some system of writing.  If that symbol came to stand for the sound of the “t” in table—rather than for the thing—the table itself—the symbol would be a letter rather than a picture, and therefore one unit in a potential alphabet.

Our alphabet, of course, stands for sounds—and that enables us to combine any number of sounds to write any number of words.

The English alphabet is ancient and its origin obscure.  Through Latin and Greek, however, it’s traceable in part to the Phoenicians of about 1300 years before Christ.  And its letters originally were simplified or stylized pictures of things.

Let’s take our capital A, for example.  (And we’re speaking only of capitals here.  The rounded, lower-case forms came later and were developed for script rather than for carvings.)  Now, the A originally was upside-down from the A we now know—sort of an inverted triangle with two horns.  That Phoenician symbol stood for an important animal, the ox.  If you draw a capital A and turn it upside down, you can see the picture (in this case, the ox’s face) in the symbol.  The Greeks took that Phoenician symbol to represent the sound of their alpha, or first letter.  In time, they turned the symbol upside-down so it would mesh better with the Greek style of writing.  Hence, the stylized animal head with horns became our letter A.

In the same way, our letter B comes from the early symbol for house.  The original symbol was a sort of box with a triangular roof.  The forms gradually rounded and changed into our capital B.

And so on.  Our C was originally a symbol for camel—the hump of the C representing the hump of the camel, maybe?  D was a picture meaning a door, E a window, F a hook, H a fence.  If we use our imaginations, we can see the hook in F, or the fence in H.

And some other letter representations also seem logical upon reflection.  L was the symbol for whip.  T represented the cross mark that illiterate people used in lieu of a signature.  M comes from the pictorial representation of water; imagine a set of waves and you’ll see why.  And if you can see the M in the waves picture, you’ll also be able to see W as the symbol for teeth.

Human body parts were well represented in the alphabet.  The capital I, for example, was a symbol for the hand.  And K originally was a sort of on-its-side symbol for the palm.  If you wonder why, turn your hand over and look at the lines marking your palm.  From one perspective or another, you’ll see a K.  Our O was originally a picture for the eye, and P was the mouth.

Some of the ancient word-pictures that went into the English alphabet are as delightful as they are logical.  Q, for example.  Experts say that for the Phoenicians, that cute little word-picture symbolized the monkey.  Sure.  A little circle with a tail.  Young children often draw certain animals that way even today.


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