Words for “alphabet” in ancient languages


The Marsiliana abecedary, Etruscan alphabet, Florence

I remember when I first realised that the English word “alphabet” came from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet – alpha and beta – and somehow I felt like I’d cracked a kind of etymological code. But the list of brilliant names for alphabet terms just goes on.

The word “alphabet”  is of course used in Greek too, as ἀλφάβητος (alphabētos), but only turns up quite late in Latin as alphabetum. Classical Latin doesn’t have a single word for “alphabet”, usually using terms like litteratura, which simply means “collection of letters”, whether in an alphabet or a piece of writing (hence our use of this term to mean “literature”). But later Latin also created the term abecedarium, taking its first four letter names and making a noun from them. Making use of this word, linguists and archaeologists often call a written-out alphabet an abecedary.

I’ve also always enjoyed the Latin word elementum “letter of the alphabet, element, fundamental part”, whose origin is uncertain but might come from the alphabet sequence L M N. The other Latin term for “letter of the alphabet” is littera, is a bit less interesting, but may have come from Greek via Etruscan.


A Venetic alphabetic dedication, Este

Other ancient la nguages don’t just borrow the term “alphabet”, but get in on the act by making a name to fit their own writing system. In Venetic, the language I am studying at the moment, the word for an alphabet (or possibly “a dedication to a god with an alphabet on it”, it’s hard to be sure), is vdan. This takes the first two consonants of the Venetic alphabet – which goes a e v d h θ i k l m n p ś r s t u b g o – and makes them into a feminine noun. I think I can safely say that this is now my favourite Venetic word, and the word which inspired this post. In Germanic languages that use runes, the alphabet is often called futhark or futharc. This name simply takes the first six letters of the alphabet as its name with no extra ending at all – the runic alphabet starts  f u þ a r k. And of course in English we do a similar thing when we sing, “Now I know my ABCs”, making a noun from our letter names.

A few other languages don’t use the letters themselves to create a name. In Old English, before alphabetum was borrowed from Latin, the usual term was stæfræw, literally “row of letters or ” stæfrof “array of letters”. A quick browse through the Wikipedia articles for “Alphabet” suggests that most modern languages have borrowed the later Latin word as alphabet or alfabet, but Icelandic seems to be sticking with stafróf, which I imagine is cognate with the Old English. I also notice that Welsh has gwyddor, which literally means “rudiment”, just like the Latin elementum. If anyone can shed some light on that term, I’d love to know more about it.


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