Latin Alphabet Changes

How the Roman Alphabet Got Its G: Consonantal Changes in the Latin Alphabet

Phoenician Alphabet
Phoenician Alphabet. Luca

The Greek Alphabet The Romans Started With > Latin Alphabet Changes

The Greeks modified a Semitic alphabet [but see What was the first alphabet?] and passed it on to the people of Italy. Modified, the Greek letters became the alphabet of the Romans at some point before 600 B.C. One of the oddities of the Romans' alphabet in comparison with the Greeks' is that the third sound of the Greek alphabet is a g-sound:

1. Greek: 1st Letter = Alpha Α, 2nd = Beta Β, 3rd = Gamma Γ...

whereas in the Latin alphabet, the third letter is a C, while the 6th letter of the Latin alphabet is a G.

2. Latin: 1st Letter = A, 2nd = B, 3rd = C, 4th = D, 5th = E, 6th = G

This is a result of changes to the Latin alphabet over time.

An early version of the alphabet used by some ancient people of Italy included the letter zeta. Zeta is the sixth letter of the Greek alphabet, following alpha (Roman A), beta (Roman B), gamma (Roman C), delta (Roman D), and epsilon (Roman E).

3. Greek: Alpha Α, Beta Β, Gamma Γ, Delta Δ, Epsilon Ε, Zeta Ζ

Where zeta (Ζ or ζ) was used in Italy, it kept its 6th place.

The third letter of the Latin alphabet was a C, as in English. This "C" could be pronounced hard, like a K. In linguistics, this c/k sound may be referred to as a voiceless velar plosive. Not only the C, but also the letter K, in the Roman alphabet, was pronounced like a K (again, hard or voiceless velar plosive).

Like the word initial K in English, the Latin K was rarely used. Usually -- perhaps, always -- the vowel A followed K, as in Kalendae 'Kalends' (referring to the first day of the month), from which we get the English word calendar. The use of the C was less restricted than the K. You can find a Latin C before any vowel.

The same third letter of the Latin alphabet, C, also served the Romans for the sound of G -- a reflection of its origin in the Greek gamma (Γ or γ).

4. Latin: The letter C = sound of K or G
(Voiceless or Voiced Velar Stop [Plosive])

The difference is not so great as it looks since the difference between K and G is what's referred to linguistically as a difference in voicing: the G sound is the voiced version of the K (this K is the hard C, as in "card" [the soft C is pronounced like the c in cell, as "suh" and not relevant here]). Both are velar plosives, but the G is voiced and the K is not. At some period, the Romans seem not to have paid attention to this voicing, so the praenomen Caius is an alternative spelling of Gaius; both are abbreviated C. [See: How to Read a Roman Name.]

When the velar plosives (C and G sounds) were separated and given different letter forms, the second C was given a tail, making it a G, and moved to the sixth place in the Latin alphabet, where the Greek letter zeta would have been, if it had been a productive letter for the Romans. It was not.

The Latin alphabet had 21 letters in the first century B.C., but then, as the Romans became Hellenized, they added two letters at the end of the alphabet, a Y for the Greek upsilon, and a Z for the Greek zeta, which had no equivalent in the Latin language*.

5. Latin:

a.) Early Alphabet: A B C D E F H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X;
b.) Later Alphabet: A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X;
c.) Still Later: A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X Y Z

Sources:

  • "On the Origins of the Latin Alphabet: Modern Views, by Arthur E. Gordon. California Studies in Classical Antiquity, Vol. 2, (1969), pp. 157-170.
  • *"Transliteration or Transcription of Greek," by Gerald P. Verbrugghe. The Classical World, Vol. 92, No. 6 (Jul. - Aug., 1999), pp. 499-511.
  • "Review by D. M. Jones of L'alfabeto e pronunzia del latino." The Classical Review, New Series, Vol. 8, No. 3/4 (Dec., 1958), pp. 292-293.