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Origin of the Letter “A”

Updated on June 21, 2017
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He is a former journalist who has worked on various community and college publications.

The Modern A
The Modern A | Source

“A” for apple, or is it for ox? When the alphabet is taught to elementary school children, they are given a concrete item -- such as an apple -- to demonstrate the sound and usage of the first letter in the alphabet.

The letter – as well as the rest of the alphabet - is a symbol for a particular unit of sound (phoneme). In terms of teaching the sound and its letter, an item that starts with that phoneme is used, and historically the letter's design may look like that item. So why does the "A" look more like an upside down head of a hoofed animal than an apple?

There are varied reason; this includes tlanguage origin and the evolution of writing. However, one thing stands out about this five thousand-year-old symbol; it owes its existence to an ox.

Modern Ox
Modern Ox

The Common "A"

The letter “A” as it is known today is the first letter of the Latin alphabet. This particular class of graphemes (symbols to represent a sound) that the modern "A" is part of, has been in use for more than two thousand years, and is still the basis for many Western European languages. The “A” symbol in English often represents the /a/ or /ae/ sounds. Nobody is sure why “A” is the first letter of the alphabet. Speculation is that it is the most common -- and initial -- vowel sound made by humans.

Origin

Its origins can be traced back to Proto-Sinaitic script hieroglyphs of Bronze Age Sinai Peninsula. The writing system used pictogram of an ox’s head to represent the vowel sound. There was an ancient Egyptian pictogram depicting an ox’s curved horns, eyes, ears and mouth; however, it's not clear if it was widely used to represent the A vowel sound within their system. This particular pictogram may have represented a sound with a glottal stop, which is unusual for a vowel sound. In many cases -- and from other eras of ancient Egyptian empires -- the A vowel sound was represented by a vulture pictogram.

The Sinaitic version was more rudimentary. Instead of a full-bodied ox head, it had curved lines for horns, a simple geometric polygon for a head, and a dot for an eye.

The Phoenicians further simplified the symbol. Circa 1600 B.C., the Phoenicians developed their alphabet. It was called an"aleph" (it may have corresponded closely to the Hebrew aleph). The "A" was known as "Alp", which translated means "Ox."

The Alp was streamlined. The Phoenicians did away with the eye and the detailed shape of the head. Now, it came to resemble the Latin “A” as it is exists today. However, there was one major difference with its modern version. It was placed on its side.

Later, the Greeks adopted the alphabet. They changed the name to alpha (hence, the name we use today: alphabet). Also, the glottal stop it once had fell out of use. Now, it came to represent the open ended vowel sound /a/ and /ae/ as it is known and heard today. Interestingly, the Phoenician-style "A" didn't vanish. The sharp features were rounded off, and came to represent the lower-case "a."

Here is a chart depicting the letter's evolution:

examples of proto-siniatic, Phoenician aleph, and Greek Alpha. "A" represented in the top row.
examples of proto-siniatic, Phoenician aleph, and Greek Alpha. "A" represented in the top row.

A Greek Twist

Another lasting innovation the Greeks added was tilting the letter. For years, the Greek Alpha rested on its side. Around 400 B.C., The Greeks propped it in the fashion that it is now commonly written today. One major exception was the crossbar (the original horns); it was connected to the bottom of one leg and rose diagonally to the middle of the other.

Also, another symbol was added to represent the vowel. In writing, “A” came to represent the capital letter or letter starting a word or sentence. The symbol “a” which had the same sound representation was introduced as a letter that followed the capital letter in a word.

Later, the Etruscans adopted the Greek alphabet and spread it throughout the Italian Peninsula. For the most part, they left it unchanged. There was a slanted font to it, but this was a minor change in its overall appearance. The cross bar was now horizontal and in the middle of the legs.

Roman Influence

The Romans later adopted the Etruscan alphabet. Some minor changes were made, mostly returning it to Greek font without serif and diagonal cross bar. They also changed the name of the letter to “Ah”. This letter would become the part of the Latin alphabet system that is still in use in English and other western European languages.

Today's "A"

Today, the letter “A” is the third most used letter in English, and the second most common in Spanish and French. It still represents the original vowel sound; however, it may represents variations of that sound such as /a/ in apple; /ae/ in ace; or /au/ in father.

IAs language came and went, the symbol representing the /a/ sound was modified. It went from a detailed Ox pictogram to a simplistic symbol that's easy to produce by writers using pen, pencils, typewriters or computers.

Also, the original Alp name has bee lost in time. Thus, "A" might be for apples, now. But it was once for Alp - the ox, too.

Alphabets for kids

© 2014 Dean Traylor

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