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Where Does the Roman Alphabet Come From?

Blog > Academia > Latin > The Latin Alphabet : Its Origins And Influences

The history of the city of Rome is very tightly linked to the history of the alphabet used by the Romans.

What was the alphabet that Cicero, Plutarch or Julius Caesar used during the first century of the Roman Empire?

The Roman letters went through many transformations through the centuries. Before being the Latin alphabet, those letters were a simple system of writing called cuneiforms script.

This cuneiform was born almost 4000 years before our era.

Which languages influenced the Latin civilisation and gave birth to the alphabet we all used today?

The Latin Alphabet Through Times

The Latin alphabet was not invented from scratch but on the contrary, it was the results of thousands of years of evolution, assimilation and improvements.

The writing of upper and lower case characters was also influenced and modified many times before eventually be the system we use today.

So what is the origin of our alphabet?

A brief history of the creation of writing:

  • 3700BC: Sumerians developed the idea of a phonetic system. They create a cuneiform alphabet which will be widely spread, borrowed and adapted. The Sumerian language is the oldest known language. Writing mostly used pictographs: phonetic signs were used for vowels and ideograms were used to refer to ideas, things or sounds.
  • 3100BC: Egyptian hieroglyphs appeared when Egyptian adapted the idea of writing using ideograms and logograms from the Sumer civilisation. The Egyptian writing system was primarily a figurative system: characters were used to represent things and people. However 3 different kinds of glyph appeared; word-glyphs used to refer to an object or action, sound-glyphs used for consonants and determinative-glyphs used to indicate the lexical field of a word.
  • 2500BC: cuneiform writing appears in Mesopotamia. This new system is capable of conveying any possible idea.
  • 2000BC: Egyptian scribes develop a 26 symbols alphabet that quickly spread through the Egyptian empire.
  • 1500BC: The proto-Sinaitic script system appears. Also called old-Canaanite, this linear alphabet is made of 23 signs. It is the precursor of the Phoenician system.
  • 1000BC: Phoenicians have been using the old-Canaanite alphabet and simplified it in a consonant system no longer using pictograms. It was used to transcribe Phoenician, a Semitic language. It was, in fact, an abjad because it only used consonant sounds. This alphabet spread through the Mediterranean costs thanks to the Phoenicians merchants. In every country it was borrowed it evolved and mixed with the local writing system.
  • 850BC: The Greeks use the Phoenician alphabet and add vowels to it. It is the very first true alphabet because each consonant and vowel use a different sign. Signs for syllables are removed and this is still today the alphabet used in Greece. The previous alphabets used in Greece was completely different from this new invention which completely took over.
  • 775BC: Etruria (in central Italy) is invaded by the Greeks. The Etruscans adopt and adapt the Greek alphabet.
  • 650BC: The Romans, after conquering Etruscans lands, adopt their alphabet system to write in Latin. Through their conquests all over Europe, Romans spread this alphabet: the Latin alphabet.

The Latium region, which is the birthplace of the Roman civilisation, went through many different writing system and dialects before evolving into the alphabet and the language that was passed on to us through the ages.

De Caelo Latin text by Aristotle This manuscript of “De Caelo” by Aristotle was copied around the 1400s and is written entirely in Roman cusrive letters. Hard to read isn’t it? (by Dunedin Public Libraries Medieval Manuscripts)

What Does the Latin Alphabet Looks Like?

The Roman alphabet archaic version only had 20 letters. G, J, U, W, Y, and Z were all missing.

Many letters were actually Greek letters alphabet to be included in the Latin alphabet, without any change in the writing (A, B, E, I, K, M, N, O, T and X). The use of the K was extremely rare and C was much more common.

Other letters writing changed to form the letters C, L, S, P, R and D in the Roman alphabet. The letters V, F and Q which were no longer used by the Greeks were adopted anyway in the Roman Empire system.

During the 3rd century BC, the letters G,Y and Z, all derived from the Greek alphabet are added to the Roman alphabet to help with the transcription of foreign words.

The letters J,U and W will only appear during the Middle Ages help with the transcriptions of some words and help to differentiate consonants from vowels (J and U were until then used as both consonant and vowel).

The Roman alphabet is the ancestor of our Latin alphabet.

The Different Writing Style of the Roman Letters

To learn a foreign language, an extinct one no less is not an easy endeavor.

This is why studying the different style of writing is an efficient way to learn how to pronounce Latin phonemes properly while approaching this language phonologically.

To write their alphabet, Romans used 4 different styles of writing. The use of each style mainly depended on the actual medium used to write and on the intended recipient of the text.

The Roman square capital letters were mainly used on buildings and monuments. It was meant to be carved in stone or marble. The term of “capitals” appeared centuries after the Roman Empire.

When the first printing machine appeared around the end of the 15th century, printers would keep the upper case letters of their printing press on the top shelves of their workshops or in a drawer above the lower case letters.

That is where the terms “Upper” and “Lower” case comes from.

In Latin “caput” meaning on top, gave the word capital, describing the uppercase letters.

At the beginning of the Latin alphabet, there was no official writing sense. Romans wrote from left to right and continued right to left when arriving on the next line. It is only around the 4th century BC that the standard left to right writing system is officially adopted.

Historians and linguists also note that at the beginning of the Latium civilisation, words were not separated by any punctuation marks. Later, dots appeared between each word. During the 2nd BC, the Roman square capitals word were all separated by middle dots.

The Roman cursive style is mostly used for everyday life in the Antic Rome. It was used for letters, laws, leases and contracts. It was also the main writing style of any students.

Many media were used to write on, from papyrus to wax, clay or wooden tablets. The writing was done using a stylet, a feather or a brush.

All those media decay with time and historians are not exactly sure when the Roman cursive style appeared.

Writing in cursive Latin characters was much quicker and simpler than writing in capitals and the speed of the styler is probably why this style of writing is hard to read. Letters are linked to one another and words are not separated by dots making it even harder to decipher.

Slowly the modern cursive style emerges. Upper and lower cases are used alongside each other as early as the 4th century. This writing style will be widely used later in the Empire of the Franks and in the British Isles kingdoms.

During the Renaissance in Italy, the italic semi-cursive handwriting style appeared and is still today one of the most popular Western writing styles.

The quadrata style was mainly used to write the first books on scrolls, called codex (many scrolls or papyrus put together).

It was written using a reed pen or a feather quill. Quadrata was reserved for important texts and manuscripts as it was more time consuming than the cursive style. Every letter is shaped is squared and is well proportioned.

This style is close to the Roman square capital style but abbreviations are rare and there are no dots or punctuation marks between words.

The Rustica writing style was used between the 1st and the 9th century. It was an improved form of the quadrata style. Still mainly using a reed pen it was sometimes engraved into brass, ivory or stone as it was smaller than the Roman square capital style. Letters were narrower than the quadrata writing and it had more rounded shapes.

Printing blocks in drawers. The capital letters blocks, also majuscule were kept in the upper drawer of the printers’ workshops, hence the name of “upper case” ( by Brian Smithson).

The Roman Numeral System

The number system the Roman used was not derived from the alphabet as one might think but it was completely borrowed to the Etruscans, which were quickly assimilated in the Roman Empire at the beginning of the rise of Rome.

Just like it was for letters, numbers were written from left to write, from the smallest number to the biggest one. It was necessary to add up the numbers to know the value. One main rule: a number is never repeated more than 4 times.

  • I: one
  • V: five
  • X: ten
  • L: fifty
  • D: five hundred
  • M: a thousand

How to write 4999?

The Roman numeral system that we still sporadically use today was only set during the Middle Ages. It was a system by subtraction.

  • Using an additive numeration system, 9 would have to be written as VIIII
  • Using a subtractive numeration system, 9 was simply written as IX (one “I”, being subtracted from ten, “X”).

For any numbers above 5000, Roman used multiple tricks. First, they used circles with lines within to add thousands and hundreds of thousands, but the practicality of carving such signs in stone faded this system.

Then they started using a line above a number to express the thousands. If a number was completely boxed in it would indicate hundreds of thousands.

Then appeared “II.C” and “III.M” to write 200 and 3000.

This complicated system is probably why we do not use Roman numbers today.

The Hindu-Arabic numeral system proved much more popular, especially since it did not use the Latin alphabet and thus avoided many possible confusions.

Maths, arithmetic, decimals, every scientific system uses Arabic numbers.

Big Ben clock in London. Big Ben in above Westminster in London is probably the most famous clock to use Roman numeral.

In English speaking countries only the names of Kings and Queens is still written using Roman numerals.

But in countries speaking Romance languages, like France, Spain or Italy, centuries are often given as “Ie” or “XVIII” to write about the 1st or 18th century.

This use of the Roman numeral in continental Europe is rarely mandatory and tends to disappear.

Just like Latin has evolved through the ages, our modern languages are changing and Roman numbers will eventually only remain on old buildings.

One legacy of the Roman Empire that will remain for centuries to come is the Latin alphabet which is now more than 2500 years old.


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