A is for Alphabet, Adultery, and…Ox?

Welcome to the first of a new fortnightly series of articles, based on something we use every single day without ever really thinking about: the Alphabet! We owe a lot to this underappreciated set of symbols, and often don’t really think about where it came from or how we use it. In fact, I’m sure that not many people have noticed that although we refer to the ‘Latin alphabet,’ it actually has a Greek name (alpha + beta = alphabet).

All modern system is derived from the first alphabet, which had 22 letters and is believed to have been devised by Semites in Egypt, around 2000 BC. It is surprising how alphabets have been transferred to new languages; often they were copied completely, with new sounds being assigned to symbols, and new symbols invented, according to the different languages’ needs. The Latin alphabet as we know it today came to us through the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Etruscans, and eventually, the Romans. It has undergone many changes throughout this process, and has gained 4 letters over the years.

So, there you have a little history! Naturally, this blog will begin with the letter ‘A,’ so let’s get cracking.

The letter ‘A’ began its life as aleph, a representation of an ox, which was pronounced as a glottal stop. Aleph was changed to Alpha when the Greeks adopted and adapted the Phoenician alphabet, and although we now call it ‘A’ (rhymes with ‘say’), the letter’s Greek name has remained in use to this day, as part of our phonetic alphabet.

Synonymous with greatness, ‘A’ is indeed an A-grade letter, an A-lister, an A1, A-okay addition to our alphabet. However, ‘A’ also has a seedy side – in medieval times it carried connotations of adultery, a criminal offence at the time. One of the punishments for the crime included being forced to wear a red letter ‘A’. This practice forms an important part of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter, and more recently, the 2010 film Easy A, which was in part inspired by the novel.

I hope you feel more acquainted with ‘A’ now, and have enjoyed the first of this new series of articles. Look out for the letter ‘B’ on 14th March.