Latin Alphabet Changes: How the Roman Alphabet got its G

The Ancient History Behind Latin Letters

Phoenician Alphabet
Phoenician Alphabet. Luca

The letters of the Latin alphabet were borrowed from the Greek, but scholars believe indirectly from the ancient Italian people known as the Etruscans. An Etruscan pot found near Veii (a city which was sacked by Rome in the 5th c BCE) had the Etruscan abecedary inscribed on it, reminding the excavators of its Roman descendants. By the 7th century BCE, that alphabet was used not just to render Latin in written form, but several others of the Indo-European languages in the Mediterranean region, including Umbrian, Sabellic, and Oscan.

The Greeks themselves based their written language on a Semitic alphabet, the Proto-Canaanite script which may have been created as long ago as the second millennium BCE. The Greeks passed it on to the Etruscans, the ancient people of Italy, and at some point before 600 BCE, the Greek alphabet was modified to become the alphabet of the Romans.

Creating a Latin Alphabet: C to G

One of the main differences between the Romans' alphabet in comparison with the Greeks' is that the third sound of the Greek alphabet is a g-sound:

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

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

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

This shift resulted from changes to the Latin alphabet over time.

The third letter of the Latin alphabet was a C, as in English. This "C" could be pronounced hard, like a K or soft like an S.

In linguistics, this hard c/k sound is referred to as a voiceless velar plosive—you make the sound with your mouth open and from the back of your throat. 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).

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

The difference is not as great as it looks since the difference between K and G is what is referred to linguistically as a difference in voicing: the G sound is the voiced (or "guttural") 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.

When the velar plosives (C and G sounds) were separated and given different letterforms, 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.

Adding Z Back in

An early version of the alphabet used by some ancient people of Italy did, in fact, include the Greek 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).

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

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

The Latin alphabet originally had 21 letters in the first century BCE, 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 then had no equivalent in the Latin language.

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

Edited and updated by K. Kris Hirst

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Gill, N.S. "Latin Alphabet Changes: How the Roman Alphabet got its G." ThoughtCo, Nov. 22, 2017, thoughtco.com/latin-alphabet-changes-119429. Gill, N.S. (2017, November 22). Latin Alphabet Changes: How the Roman Alphabet got its G. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/latin-alphabet-changes-119429 Gill, N.S. "Latin Alphabet Changes: How the Roman Alphabet got its G." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/latin-alphabet-changes-119429 (accessed May 21, 2018).