Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Waw: The Mystery and Beauty of Alphabets

I don't know if most people have a favorite letter of the alphabet.  It seems like the sort of eccentricity that only someone who thinks about language a lot would have, especially if they took their favoritism very, very seriously. 

As a matter of fact, I take mine so seriously that I can't even settle on one particular letter.  I can only talk about my favorite class of letters (they come in classes, you see).  Namely, that numerous class derived from Waw, a letter of the Semitic alphabets of the ancient world.  The multiplicity of Waw is a feature of written language that never ceases to amaze me.  As a student of history and language, I though it might be interesting to share with you all the remarkable story of how one symbol took on an unusual role in the development of our alphabet.

So, you ask, what the heck is Waw?

For starters, it looks like this:

Phoenician Waw
Or, at least it did in its Phoenician form, the most direct influence on the alphabets of Europe.  It looks somewhat different in Hebrew and Arabic and the other Semitic alphabets, but for those of us who write with the Latin alphabet, this is our Waw, and we can put the others aside for the time being.

How do we say "Waw?"  It's a difficult question.  In modern times it's usually called "Vav," because the sound it makes in present-day Hebrew is equivalent to that of the letter V.  But in ancient times, it would have sounded more like the English word "wow," and indicated the sound of W.  For historical purposes, I prefer to say "wow," but you don't have to!  It's your choice.

So we begin our tale with Phoenician Waw, which as I have said, was pronounced like W.  English-speaking readers will note, however, that the letter it most resembles is Y.  This is not a coincidence.  Waw's descendants in the alphabets of Europe have not only adopted many shapes, but also a startling number of sounds.  Across the ages, you can find Waw-letters in many languages representing all of these sounds (and more), here represented in the international phonetic alphabet*:
  • /w/ - the consonant sound of English "wow."
  • /u/ - the vowel sound of English "food."
  • /ju/ - the consonant/vowel combination sound of English "you."
  • /i/ - the vowel sound of English "feed."
  • /j/ - the first consonant sound of English "yellow."
  • /y/ - a vowel sound not usually found in English: pronounced like the vowel in "feed," but with the lips rounded as though it were "food."
  • /ʌ/ - the vowel sound of English "strut."
  • /ai/ - the sound of the English word "I."
  • /v/ - the first consonant sound of English "van."
  • /f/ - the first consonant sound of English "fan."
  • /b/ - the first consonant sound of English "ban."
And that's not even a complete list!   There's simply no denying that Waw has been an extremely adaptive symbol.

In school, we are taught early on that the twenty six (or so) letters of the alphabet all stand for a sound, and it's this function that allows us to read words, even if we've never seen them before.  This is called the Alphabetic Principle: one letter or one combination of letters makes a particular sound.  Experience tells us otherwise: English in particular often has a haphazard relationship between its letters and its sounds.  The story of Waw is the great example of the challenge inherent in designing a perfect alphabet: the demands of many languages and the passage of time can distort the sounds and shapes of letters in ways that can hardly ever be predicted.

*- The international phonetic alphabet symbols listed here are not necessarily Waw-letters themselves.  For instance, the IPA symbol for the first sound of the word "yellow" is /j/, which is not derived from Waw.  The letter Y, however, is derived from Waw, and is the letter used in many languages to indicate that sound.  The distinction between letters and sounds is very important to understanding how both can change!

The Early Adventures of Waw

The Semitic alphabets, including Phoenician, are actually what we call abjads.  They have symbols for consonant sounds, but not vowels, which are indicated by other means, or not indicated at all.  This works fine for Semitic languages, where most related words have similar patterns of consonants.  But it didn't work for the Greeks, who created their own alphabet on the Phoenician model, back in the 8th century B.C.

Phoenician Waw had one principal sound: /w/.  From Waw, the Greeks fashioned two distinct letters: one for the consonant sound, and one for a vowel, specifically the vowel /u/.  The vowel was written as Υ, and came to be called Upsilon.  The consonant was slightly modified in shape, becoming Ϝ.  This letter was pronounced as /w/, just like the original Waw.  In fact, its name was originally Wau, but later on became widely known as Digamma (because of its resemblance to the letter Gamma).

This was the first time Waw was split into multiple letters, but it didn't last in Greek.  Within a few centuries of the alphabet's creation, the sound /w/ had disappeared from the Greek language.  When that happened, the need for Ϝ disappeared, and Ϝ was eventually dropped from the standard version of the alphabet.  To this day, Υ remains the only Waw-letter in the Greek alphabet.
Upsilon, upper and lower case.
That might have been it for Waw in Europe (at least as far as the shape goes), but adapting an alphabet to the needs of another language is a tricky thing, and Υ alone was not sufficient for the needs of the people of central Italy.

International Waw

Pottery with an early version of the Greek Alphabet: Upsilon is the fourth letter from the right on the second row.
Latin and Greek are (and were) in many ways similar languages.  They are both descended from a common Indo-European ancestor and their core vocabularies are much alike.  However, their sets of phonemes, or language sounds, had largely diverged by the time of the alphabet.

One of the most obvious differences was that the ancient Greek language did not have the sound /f/, while ancient Latin did.  Modern Greek does have /f/, and it is written with the letter Φ (Phi).  However, Φ had a different sound in those days: similar to the English letter P, but with a strong puff of air behind it.  In those early days, the Latin speaking Romans had no obvious use for Φ, but they did need a letter for /f/.

The Romans' neighbors, the Etruscans, had an ad-hoc solution.  Their alphabet was based on a very early version of the Greek, and still included Ϝ as the symbol for /w/.  For reasons known perhaps only to the Etruscans, they had decided to use the letters ϜH to represent /f/.  Dropping the H, the Romans rescued F from oblivion and assigned it the value we recognize today.

Of course, the use of F for /f/ meant that it could not be used for /w/.  The Romans, however, did not mind this.  To them, the sounds of the consonant /w/ and the vowel /u/ were similar enough that one letter could serve for both of them, and nobody was likely to be confused.

For that, the Romans simply adopted Υ from the Greek/Etruscan alphabet, only they simplified it slightly.  Removing the letter's lower stem, their new letter was written as V.  Its name was pronounced /u/ (as in "ooh") and depending on context it was either a consonant or a vowel.

Therefore, by the time of the Roman Republic, the Latin language was using two Waw-letters, F and V, to represent three distinct sounds: /f/, /w/, and /u/.  Waw, of course, was only just beginning its productive mutation into further shapes and sounds.

Imperial Waw

Inscription from the Coliseum: both V and F are found here, but V is far more common.
After the Romans began conquering everything they could see, they added the Greeks to their massive empire during the first and second centuries B.C.: the very people who had provided the foundation for the Latin alphabet.  The Romans admired Greek culture, and actively imported it into their own society, borrowing myths, philosophical and scientific concepts, and everything else they could get their hands on.  Naturally, this meant borrowing a great many Greek words into Latin.

Since the Latin alphabet was based on the Greek, it might seem as though writing Greek words for a Latin audience would be easy.  Actually, the Greek language had changed significantly since the creation of the alphabet, in ways that the Romans couldn't immediately adapt to.

One of the most dramatic changes involved the Greek letter Υ, or Upsilon: it no longer represented the vowel sound /u/ in spoken Greek.  After a few centuries of changing pronunciation, it stood for the sound /y/.  As described above, this vowel is like trying to pronounce the word "feed" with your lips rounded as though it were "food."  The letters Υ and V were therefore no longer equivalent to each other, and there was no obvious combination of the other Latin vowels that would carry the same sound.

So the Romans went a step further from borrowing words and borrowed some letters.  They introduced Y to their own alphabet as a sixth vowel, to be used only for writing the sound /y/ when it occurred in Greek words they had borrowed (such as systema or physica).  They called the letter "Y Graeca," to emphasize its foreign origin, and most Latin speakers had difficulty distinguishing its sound from the sound /i/, which they wrote with the letter I.  Eventually the letters I and Y were regarded as more or less interchangeable.

Thus, by the height of the Roman Empire there were three distinct Waw-letters (F, V, and Y) representing five distinct sounds (/f/, /w/, /u/, /i/, and occasionally /y/) in the Latin alphabet.  As more and more time and distance passed between the Phoenicians and later civilizations, the identities of Waw and its progeny were growing more and more distinct.

The Romances of Waw

The Roman Empire was a large place, and its vast territory supplied ample room for the Latin language to spread.  Many of the languages of Europe, particularly of the western Mediterranean region, are direct descendants of Latin; most of the other languages have adopted many of its words.  The alphabet followed in its wake, and today is used by languages from many language families all over the world.
The Roman Empire at its Largest
But the Empire fell in the fifth century, in part due to over-extension.  Over such a large area and across many centuries, the Latin language also underwent numerous changes.  Different changes took place in different provinces, which accounts for the differences that exist among the Romance languages today, such as French, Italian, and Spanish.  But there were some changes that were more or less universal, and affected not only particular Romance languages, but Latin as it continued to be used by the Catholic Church, and the writing systems of many other languages.

The letter V began to take on the sound English speakers associate with it today, /v/, as the Empire grew older.  In some regions, as in modern Spanish, it even changed to /b/.  Changes in pronunciation happen to languages all the time, and are usually denounced by authorities of the older generations even as the youth take them up with hardly a care.  Many of the sounds of Latin were changed over the years, but the change from /w/ to /v/ is one of the most obvious and dramatic.

The use of V to represent /v/ presented some difficulty for writers, especially for those attempting to write down words from Germanic languages such as English, where the sound /w/ was still common.  As V became more strongly associated with /v/, a substitute symbol was needed.  Many writers used a symbol from the old Runic alphabet, Ƿ, which was called Wynn.  But others began writing the sound by putting two V's together, as VV.  By the medieval period this combination had developed into the new letter, W; it wasn't used much in Latin or the Romance languages, but it remains integral to the Germanic languages.

The other main problem presented by the change to the sound of V was that it became much easier to confuse the sound of the consonant form with the vowel.  A new form, U, appeared during the middle ages, but it was not used the way it is now; in fact, it only ever appeared in the lower case.  The basic rule was this: V was used at the beginning of a word (or if the entire word was written in capital letters), and U was used in the middle of the words.

This, of course, did not make anything clearer, as it led to bizarre spellings like "vniuerse."  But it wasn't until the sixteenth century that U was widely regarded as a separate letter and a clear vowel/consonant split was established.  Whatever the reason for inventing the letter U, it doesn't seem to have been to make things easier for readers. 

Indeed, by the time U was established as an independent letter, many languages required more of it than to represent just /u/.  English put, cut, and fuse each contain different vowels, and none of them is simply /u/.  The French use U to indicate /y/ and the combination OU to indicate /u/.  In languages with more than five vowels, the Latin letters have had to pull double, triple, and sometimes quadruple shifts.

As a result of all this, the standard Latin alphabet entered the modern age with twenty six letters, five of which were ultimately derived from Waw: F, V, Y, W, and U.  Together they indicate at least ten different sounds in Modern English, and several more across other languages.  New letters haven't been introduced for quite a while, and aren't likely to be now that spellings have been widely standardized, but old Waw has done quite well for itself over only a couple thousand years!

Waw in Modern Times

Fully nineteen percent of our standard alphabet comes from the single letter Waw, more than from any other semitic letter.  But from a strictly practical perspective, that is irrelevant.  Alphabetic symbols are by their nature entirely arbitrary.  The Latin letter P is almost identical to the Greek letter called Rho, but they have completely different sounds.  The shape of the letter doesn't have anything to do with the sound it makes: that's just a convention that we all have agreed upon in order to make reading possible.

An alphabet is a tool: a way to speak when our mouths are otherwise unavailable.  The symbols are analogues of particular mouth configurations, and it's up to the speakers of a language to determine at any given time what the precise conventions are.  And the history of Waw-letters, convoluted as it is, demonstrates how changing conventions can alter the identity of letters, even though we're taught in school to think of them as a sort of unchanging, received legacy.  Small wonder the rules of English spelling don't seem to make sense!

In two hundred years time, your descendents will speak an essentially different language, and there's no guarantee that F, V, Y, W, or U will mean the same sounds to them as they do to you.   And there's no guarantee they won't be using any newly invented letters.  They might even be further derivations of Waw.  But they might not.

My Favorite Letters

Alphabets are arbitrary, so is language itself, not to mention the ideas we use our gift for language to express.  I could have written about anything at all, but today I wrote about alphabets and letters.  I thought they could use a little extra appreciation.

I like the Waw letters, especially W.  Part of that is just the aesthetics of the sound, and that's just personal preference.  But the productivity of Waw and the ease with which it has been adapted to different linguistic needs is exceptional.  There was nothing particularly different about this letter that marked it out from the rest: unpredictable history took its course, and left the story in its wake.

People talk sometimes about spelling reform, or a new alphabet for our language that actually fits its pronunciation.  I even took a rather pathetic crack at designing one myself.  But I love the system we have, with its unpredictability and its historically-informed lunacy.  And as long as we can still read it, I think the argument that we need a new one is fundamentally weak.
All pictures taken from Wikipedia


  1. Reading your excellent exposition on the life of Waw and its many transformations I find myself speculating once more about what to me seem some remarkable parallels between the history of human culture, language in particular, and biological evolution. Do you know of any good source materials that deal with this theme in a cross-disciplinary manner? (genqueue)

  2. I don't believe that I've read many books that focus on the analogues between cultural/linguistic and biological evolution per se. But I have read some good books about linguistic change: Bill Bryson's "The Mother Tongue" is one of my favorites, discussing principally the evolution of English vocabulary and spelling.

    Most of my knowledge, though, comes from perusing the Online Etymological Dictionary and Wikipedia for hours on end. So, it isn't

    The important thing to remember of course is that the two processes are only analogous; it's not the same thing for an alphabet to adapt its letters to new sounds as it is for a species of fish to adapt its gills for saltier water. They are similar in that changes usually persist when they contribute to (or at least do not unduly harm) the survival of the organisms/cultures in question.

    But cultural evolution is influenced by intelligent actors (humans) who are theoretically capable of choosing whether to take on or abandon cultural traits. Biological evolution, barring genetic manipulation or selective breeding on our part, is much more random. Still, culture is obviously not under the total control of individuals: we are influenced by it more than we are usually capable of influencing it ourselves.