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What is the origin of the Latin alphabet?

Atualizado: 12 de set. de 2019

The Latin alphabet, also known as Roman alphabet, is the alphabet writing system most used in the world. Almost all the Western and Central Europe languages use it, in addition to the areas colonized by European countries. Still, among the ten most spoken languages in the world only three use it: Portuguese, Spanish and English. But do you know how the Latin alphabet appeared and evolved until the form as we know it today?

Latin alphabet


The Latin alphabet was first adopted by the Romans in the Century VII B.C.; it derived from the Etruscan alphabet which, in turn, originated in the Greek alphabet. At first the Roman alphabet had 21 letters: A, B, C, D, E, F, Z, H, I, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, V, X, with variations of Roman letters among such characters, for example, C was a variation of the gamma character and represented the sounds /k/ and /g/. The G was introduced in place of Z which was excluded in III B.C. as it represented no Roman sound; it would return to the alphabet in I B.C., when Rome conquered Greece. The Y was also added being used for the writing of words with Greek roots.

The three last letters forming the current Latin alphabet were added in the Middle Ages: J, U and W. J appeared to differentiate the use of I with sound of consonant. Likewise, U was introduced to differentiate the use of V with vowel sound; and W appeared to represent Germanic sounds.

The alphabet used by Romans had upper case letters only; lower case appeared in the Middle Ages. The old Roman letters were kept in formal inscriptions and to provide emphasis in documents. The languages using the Latin alphabet normally employ upper case in the beginning of paragraphs, sentences and given names, but the rules vary from language to language. In English, for instance, nationalities should have the first letter in upper case, and in German the nouns also start with upper case.

Expansion and Evolution

The Latin alphabet followed the expansion of the Roman Empire; thus, it crossed the Italy frontiers and spread out around the Mediterranean Sea. The Empire lands in the East continued using the Greek language, while the Western part started using Latin. Therefore, the romance languages deriving from Latin use the Latin alphabet.

In the Middle Ages the expansion of the Church increased the Latin reach; the speakers of Germanic, Celtic, Baltic, Uralic and Slavic languages such as Polish and Czech adopted the Latin alphabet; now in Modern Ages with the great navigations the alphabet reached other continents carried by the settlers. Today it is dominant in America and large part of Sub-Saharan Africa and Oceania, and it is also present in Asia. In the Slavic world it competes with the Cyrillic alphabet according to political and religious issues. In 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union some of the Republics replaced the Cyrillic by Latin writing.

Due to the importance of the Latin writing in the current international scenario, several languages that adopt other alphabets or writing systems have official standards for transcription of their languages, in a process called ‘romanization’; this is the case, for instance, of Japanese, Mandarin and Thai.

Today the standard Latin alphabet has 26 characters; this is the system used in Portuguese and English. However, there are several variations according to the languages in which it is used. Thus, mergers, modifications and extensions of letters are created so that the writing would be adapted to each context.


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