There is quite a bit of mystery surrounding the letter A. From its prestigious first place position to its interesting character origin – tracing the first letter of the English alphabet uncovers a history of honor that begins with, of all things, an ox.
The letter ‘A’ is derived from the Phoenician letter ‘Aleph’ – a western Semitic word meaning the aforementioned beast of burden. Aleph can be traced back to the Middle Bronze Age and the Proto-Sinaitic script found in parts of Egypt and Canaan from around 1850 BCE (Before the Common Era). The character comes from an ancient Egyptian hieroglyph or pictogram depicting an ox’s head. Interestingly, the original image was reminiscent of the modern letter ‘K’ – imagine a sideways ‘V’ with a crossbar to indicate the ox’s horns. The letter originally served as a glottal stop (a stop consonant) in the Phoenician language such as a T or P in the middle of a word. Linguists believe the Aleph was placed at the beginning of the Phoenician alphabet to honor the ox, important for its muscle power and as a food source.
During the 8th century BCE, the ancient Greeks formed their own alphabet primarily based on the Phoenician alphabet. Since the Greeks had little use for a glottal stop, the Aleph was used to denote the vowel ‘a’ which was re-named ‘Alpha,’ possessing the phoneme ‘a’ as in “father.” The Greeks revised the former k-like character by turning it upright – similar to the modern day capital, or majuscule, letter A.
The Romans adopted the Greek alphabet by way of the Etruscans. Like the Etruscans before them, the Romans kept the character and phoneme intact; thus the Modern English vowel ‘A’ was born.
A is the third most commonly used letter in the English alphabet; the letter /e/ is in first place, followed closely by the letter /t/. The letter A likes to multitask, possessing three distinct phonemes: The /æ/, also referred to as a near-open front un-rounded vowel, denotes the ‘a’ sound in “apple” and “cat,” the open-back un-rounded vowel, or /a:/, denotes the long ‘a’ sound heard in “father” and “March,” and the /ā/, an orthographic vowel, exhibits the /ei/ sound heard in the words “made” and “fade.”
Okay, it’s your turn once again. Let us know which letter of the alphabet you’d like us to investigate next. The letter that gets the most comments will turn up here in the very near future.
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