Positively perplexing P

The letter P is a stop (or plosive) consonant, formed by expelling breath while the nasal passage is temporarily stopped from within. The sound of the letter P is generally consistent. In some words, P can sound more like the audible consonant B, especially in words beginning with S, e.g. “spill”. P also has an unusual half pronunciation in words such as “tempt”. Occasionally its sound disappears altogether. We are familiar with this in words from Greek including “pneumatic”, but our friend P can also fade into the shadows in words such as “raspberry”.

P and B, along with M, form a trinity of consonants known as the labials. They are so called because they are all formed using the lips. Their ease of pronunciation makes them among the most common words spoken by infants. Examples of such early utterances are “mama” and “papa”.

The 16th letter of our alphabet, P is believed to descend from the world’s oldest known alphabetic inscriptions in central Egypt. Here it was referred to as pe (pronounced “pay”). When the Phoenician alphabet was adopted by the Greeks in around 800 B.C., the name was tweaked to pi. Today, this letter is pronounced “pie” in English. It is the famous ratio denoting the number of times the diameter of a circle would fit around its circumference. It looks like this: π

In the top 3

P has the interesting distinction of being the 3rd most common opening letter in English. Following C in second place and S at number one. In Old English, P was only rarely used as an initial letter. This shows how much the language has changed! Including the explosion of invading Latin prefixes such as pre- and post-, and Greek counterparts para- and peri-. These elements are common in medical and legal translation services.

The abbreviation “P” appears in the periodic table as the chemical symbol for phosphorus. It is also used to express the term “softly” (taken from the Italian piano, meaning the same) in musical notation. Knowledge such as this is vital for accurate translations. We here at Lingua Translations only work with linguists who have at least 5 years’ experience, ensuring quality translation services.

Mind your p’s

The English expression “mind your p’s and q’s”, an encouragement to be polite and behave well. This originated with the printing trade from the 15th to the early 20th century. When setting the type, using metal letter blocks, workers found it difficult to differentiate between lower case letters b, d, p and q. They therefore needed to pay particular attention to these to avoid confusion. Idiomatic phrases such as this are vital in terms of producing fluent and natural-sounding texts, the aim of all translation services.

In his essay “The Watchers of the Night”, American author James Thurber points out the conflicting personalities of the letter P: “in it one finds pleasure and pain, peace and pandemonium, prosperity and poverty”. What a perplexing puzzle our friend P is!

Do you have anything to add to our history of the letter P? Do let us know!

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