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.

4 thoughts on “Words for “alphabet” in ancient languages

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  1. We don’t know what the Lepontic name for alphabet was, but we have two or three short inscriptions consisting of the letter AEV, which must have been the first three letters of the alphabetic sequence if the Lepontians used the same sequence as the Venetians. I regard AEV to be a shorthand for the entire alphabet, in any case.
    Old Irish aipgitir/aibgitir shows that Lat. abecedarium was produced not with a palatalised quality of the letter C, but still with a classical, non-palatalised quality (albeit lenited in British fashion in word-internal position). The Modern Irish word for alphabet, aibítir (with variants aibidil, aibidir), still continues the Old Irish word.
    The Irish Ogam alphabet is sometimes called Beth-Luis-Nion (in fact, a very humble-jumble anachronistic name!) after the first letters in the series.


  2. The Welsh gwyddor [“elements” ~ “alphabet”] is a by-form of egwyddor, from Latin abecēdārium, — with apocope of the second syllable —which would have given *afgwyddawr , > agwyddor with subsequent weakening of the initial unaccented a- > e-. Both forms occur in middle Welsh and there is an Old Welsh form [ab]guidaur: Latin long -e- regularly gives Welsh -ui-, modern -wy- as in istwyll < stella. There are also Old Irish forms abgiter, abgitir, also with apocope.

    The form gwyddor has been influenced by other forms in gwydd- (cognate with Latin videre) which have given such words as Welsh gwyddoniaeth "science".

    See http://geiriadur.ac.uk/gpc/gpc.html?gwyddor.


  3. Icelandic word stafróf lierally means: a spectrum of letters. Staf(ir)= letters and róf = spectrum.


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