Excerpt from Spell It Out by David Crystal, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Spell It Out

The Curious, Enthralling and Extraordinary Story of English Spelling

By David Crystal

Spell It Out
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  • Hardcover: Jun 2013,
    336 pages.
    Paperback: 2 Dec 2014,
    336 pages.

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Spell It Out

A,a

A has been the first letter of the alphabet for the whole of its history. Originally a consonant, aleph (meaning 'ox'), in the Semitic alphabet, it became the vowel alpha in Greek. The lower-case 'open a' is a development of the capital letter, with the addition of a left-facing loop at the top and a lowering of the cross-bar. The lower-case 'closed a' is an italic development from the medieval period.

B,b

B has been the second letter of the alphabet since Semitic times, a consonant whose name was beth (meaning 'house'). It emerged in the later Greek alphabet as a capital letter with a shape close to its modern form. The lowercase letter developed from a later style of handwriting consisting of simple rounded letter shapes.

C,c

C has been the third letter of the alphabet since Semitic times, developing its right-facing curve in the Latin alphabet. The lower-case letter is simply a smaller form of the capital. Neither has changed much in shape in the past 2,000 years.

D,d

The fourth letter of the alphabet since Semitic times, D derives from Greek delta, ?. A right-rounded shape appeared in Latin, and this came into English. The lower-case letter is a development of the capital, written rapidly to produce a form with a lengthened upper stroke and a reduced, left-rounded lower element.

E,e

E was a consonant symbol in the Semitic alphabet, but was used as a vowel in Greek, one of its shapes emerging in Latin and eventually in English as the capital letter. The lower-case letter developed as a smaller, rounded variant of the capital in a cursive style of handwriting.

F,f

F, along with U, V and W, comes from a single symbol used in the North Semitic alphabet. This gave rise to two letters in early Greek, one of which was adopted by the Etruscans and Romans. The elongated lower-case form arose later, when scribes began to run letters together in handwriting.

G,g

G is found first in the 4th century BC, in a revised version of the Latin alphabet. Previous alphabets had used the C symbol for the g sound (as in god), and the new symbol was a simple adaptation of that, adding a small crossbar. The lower-case form went through a complex set of changes to produce the modern symbols – the g with a closed lower element, as usually seen in print, and the 'open g' of handwriting.

H,h

H was originally a Semitic letter which came into Latin via Greek and Etruscan to represent the /h/ sound. The lower-case rounded form arose with the development of handwriting.

I,i

I was a consonant in the Semitic alphabet, represented a vowel in Greek, and came into Latin with both vowel and consonant values. The lower-case letter is a smaller form of the capital. The dot was originally a small diacritic, similar to an acute accent, added in early Middle English to distinguish the stroke of an i from the otherwise identical strokes of adjacent letters (m, n, u).

J,j

The history of this letter in English dates only from the medieval period. Originally a graphic variant of i (a lengthened form with a bottom left-facing curve), it gradually came to replace i whenever that letter represented a consonant, as in jewel. The lower-case distinction did not become standard until the mid-17th century, and there was uncertainty about the upper-case distinction even as late as the early 19th century

. K,k

K was a Semitic letter which came into Latin via Greek and Etruscan. It was little used in Latin (which preferred C and Q), and it is uncommon in Old English. The lower-case form arose in handwriting through a simple extension of the upright stroke above the line.

L,l

L was a symbol in the Semitic alphabet, and developed via Greek, Etruscan and Latin into the modern capital form, with a horizontal line replacing an earlier oblique. The lower-case letter arose in handwriting, when scribes joined L to adjacent letters by using an upper loop and turning the horizontal stroke into a curve. These linking features were omitted in the printed form.

From Spell it Out by David Crystal. Copyright © 2013 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC.

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