The origin of the letter "A"
My son is learning how to write the letter A. His own teacher learnt how to write it around thirty years ago. His teacher’s teacher learnt the same letter decades before. This chain goes back millennia. What is the origin of this famous shape?
Our Latin “A” came from the Greek “A”, with little change, at least in the uppercase version. In between, “A” probably passed through the Etruscan script. People copied other people, not exactly knowing they were creating new scripts: letters were (and still are) useful tools.
But whom did Greeks copy? They copied the first letter of the Phoenician script, called “aleph”, which represented a consonantal sound to which Greeks had no use. In Greek, it was used to represent a vowel. (Phoenician script only represented consonants.)
The Phoenician letter was probably a simplification of a drawing of an ox that may have come from an Egyptian hieroglyph. Even today, if we turn our letter upside down, we can easily imagine horns.
So, my son, learning to write the letter “A”, is keeping up a tradition that goes back to Phoenicians and, quite probably, to Egyptian hieroglyphs — and we do the same when we press A in our keyboards.
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If you’re interested in the history of writing, you may start by reading The Story of Writing: Alphabets, Hieroglyphs and Pictograms, by Andrew Robinson.