What Are the Letters of the Alphabet?

letters of the alphabet
Letters of the alphabet. Getty Images

A letter is an alphabetic symbol such as A or a.

There are 26 letters in the modern English alphabet. Among the world’s languages, the number of letters ranges from 12 in the Hawaiian alphabet to 231 principal characters in the Ethiopian syllabary.

Etymology: From the Latin, "shape or symbol used in writing"

The Efficiency of the Alphabet

  • "Because letters work at the phonemic level and are unencumbered by any extra baggage of sound, they achieve maximum efficiency. Our six letters of 'pencil' can easily be broken out and rearranged within countless other words--'lien,' 'Nile,' 'stipend,' 'clip,'--that sound nothing like 'pencil.' Letters are the original snap-on tools: They build on each other as necessary, so you actually need fewer items in your toolit. With 26, we capture reasonably well the approximately 500,000 words of English."
    (David Sacks, Letter Perfect: The Marvelous Story of Our Alphabet From A to Z. Broadway, 2004)

    The History of Letters

    • From A to B
      "The symbol A indicated in Semitic a glottal consonant that did not exist in Greek. Its semitic name was 'aleph, the initial apostrophe here indicating the consonant in question; and, because the name means 'ox,' it has been thought to represent an ox's head, though interpreting many of the Semitic signs as pictorial characters presents as yet insuperable difficulties (Gelb 1963, pp. 140-41). By ignoring the initial Semitic consonant of the letter's name, the Greeks adopted this symbol as a vowel, which they called alpha. Beth was ultimately somewhat modified in form to B by the Greeks, who wrote it and other reversible letters facing in either direction; in the early days of writing they wrote from right to left, as the Semitic peoples usually did and as the Hebrew is still written. From the Greek modifications of the Semitic names of the first two letters, the word alphabet is ultimately derived."
      (Thomas Pyles and John Algeo, The Origins and Development of the English Language, 3rd ed., 1982)
    • The Roman Alphabet in Old English and Middle English
      "[A] linguistic connection between the Anglo-Saxons who settled in the British Isles and other Germanic tribes is their use of the runic alphabet, developed on the continent for scratching short messages onto wood or stone. But runic writing had only a limited use in Britain; the conversion to Christianity brought with it the Roman alphabet, which was established as the principal medium for Old English written records. Because it was devised for writing Latin rather than English, the Roman alphabet was not a perfect fit for the Old English sound system. Latin had no 'th' sound and consequently no letter to represent it; to fill this gap the Anglo Saxons imported the letter 'thorn,' 'þ', from the runic alphabet. This letter remained in use for writing English until the fifteenth century, when it developed a y-shaped appearance; it now survives in this modified form in faux archaic ye olde tea shoppe signs, where ye should properly be pronounced 'the.'"
      (Simon Horobin, How English Became English. Oxford University Press, 2016)

      The Lighter Side of Letters

      • "I'm good friends with 25 letters of the alphabet. I don't know Y."
        (Comedian Chris Turner, quoted by Mark Brown in "Edinburgh Fringe's 10 Funniest Jokes Revealed." The Guardian, August 20, 2012)