Lost Letters: The Claudian Letters

Lost Letters - Claudian LettersLast week, we looked at some of the letters dropped from the Greek Alphabet — letters that never even made it into Latin. This week, we’ll look at the Claudian Letters, three new letters introduced by the Roman Emperor Claudius. But first, a little background on the Latin Alphabet.

Etruscan Influence

On its way from Greece to Rome, the alphabet had a layover in Tuscany, where it was adapted for the Etruscan language. Etruscan was, as far as we know, unrelated to any other language, and it had a sound inventory unlike Greek or Latin. For example, the Etruscans had a guttural /q/ sound, which preserved the otherwise useless letter Q. In addition, the Etruscans did not have a sound for /g/, so the Greek letter Gamma (Γγ) got changed to a /k/ sound, becoming the letter C. This left the Romans with three letters for /k/ and none for /g/.

Early Roman Reforms

From the Etruscans, the early Romans inherited the alphabet “ABCDEFZHIKLMNOPQRSTVX”. Since there was no letter for /g/, they started writing a C with a tail whenever it was voiced. They also dropped the letter Z, the seventh letter of the alphabet, since there was no such sound in Ancient Latin. That opened up a spot for the new C-with-a-tail letter G.

A few centuries later, the Roman Republic had conquered much of the Mediterranean, including Greece. This led to an influx of Greek words into Latin. These Greek words had funny sounds that weren’t in the Latin Alphabet, so a guy named Appius Claudius (an ancestor of the Emperor Claudius) added two new letters, Y and the previously-spurned letter Z, which lost its place in the alphabet and went to the end.

Claudian Letters

Writing systems tend to be very resistant to change, but if anyone could change the alphabet, it would be a Roman Emperor. After all, Julius Caesar managed to rename the month of Quintillis after himself. So when Claudius looked at the alphabet, he figured he could add some letters. He added three: Antisigma (Ↄↄ) represented /bs/ and /ps/, in the same way that X represents /ks/ or /gs/. Digamma Inversum (Ⅎⅎ) signified a /w/ sound, and H-Dimidia (Ⱶⱶ) represented a vowel sound between /i/ and /u/. While these letters were used on some inscriptions during Claudius’ lifetime, they were abandoned after his death.

After Claudius, the Latin Alphabet did not gain any new letters till the Middle Ages, when W joined the alphabet, filling the role of Ⅎ. Even so, W had a competitor in the English Alphabet. In next week’s installment, we’ll look at some of the letters used in the early days of the English language.

Steve Lovelace

Steve Lovelace is a writer, photographer and graphic artist. After graduating Michigan State University in 2004, he taught Spanish in Samoa before moving to Dallas, Texas. He blogs every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at http://steve-lovelace.com.

You may also like...

7 Responses

  1. August 27, 2012

    […] the centuries, many spelling reforms have tried to add new letters to the alphabet. Given that the Emperor Claudius couldn’t pull this off, you might think that no new letters have been added since ancient times. In fact, we’ve […]

  2. September 4, 2012

    […] we’ve looked at letters of the alphabet made and lost in the days of ancient Greece and Rome. Now let’s look at some of the Old English Letters that never made it into our modern […]

  3. April 18, 2013

    […] derived from the Greek Alphabet, the Latin alphabet is a lot curvier. What about the Greeks and the Romans carved letters into stone, the Romans had a tendency to paint the letters on with a brush first. […]

  4. April 26, 2013

    […] I can’t help but feel a little responsible for Borders’ demise. I used to shop there all the time, even just a couple of years ago. But now I can’t remember the last time I spent money there. Back in the day, I used to go there two or three times a week, and half the time I ended up buying something. But a couple of years ago, I found myself buying fewer books there. Then I found myself going less often. I was reading a lot more stuff online, for better or worse. For someone like me, who is a fan of nonlinear nonfiction, it was a easy to switch away from books. Fiction was another matter. Since the days of Dickens, the novel has been the “killer app” for the mass-market book. Reading a novel on a computer screen is tedious, but now that e-readers like the Kindle and Nook have become popular, this last bastion of the printed word is starting to fall. While I’m certain that paper books won’t go away altogether, they will eventually be relegated into a niche applications, much like parchment, scrolls and stone inscriptions. […]

  5. August 5, 2013

    […] the proper cadence and intonation of a text, without sounding out the words aloud. But as with the letters of the alphabet, not every punctuation mark made the cut. Here now are some odd punctuation marks, symbols you […]

  6. February 13, 2014

    […] cut. Some of the these letters were added to the alphabet and later dropped, whereas others were proposed additions that never got adopted. Some spelling reformers, however, have not been content to add a new letter […]

  7. February 13, 2014

    […] Emperor Claudius. In the next installment of the Lost Letter series, we’ll take a look at Claudius’ attempt to add new letters to the alphabet. Then we’ll look at the letters developed and lost in Medieval England, followed by modern […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *