Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Short-Lived Latin Letters

Spotted this on Tenser said the Tensor: Emperor Claudius proposed three additions to the Latin alphabet that were used briefly on inscriptions while he was alive:

1. Antisigma: a reversed sigma (Greek s) for use in clusters 'bs' and 'ps'. As Tensor comments, what's the use? Dunno, but it looks cool.

2. Digamma inversum: The former Greek letter digamma looked like an F and was used like a W, which is in essence a consonantal U, which is what Claudius thought to use this new letter for. I've wondered why the name sounds like it's related to Greek gamma, but I have noticed that 'gw' and 'kw' is a common consonant cluster in Proto-Indo-European words, yielding descendants with g (or k) sounds in one family, and w (or v or f) sounds in another. E.g., PIE gwem > E come but Latin venire; gwei > E quick but Latin vivus; PIE kwei > E cheetah (through Sanskrit) but poem (through Greek).

3. "Half-eta": To represent the Greek upsilon (more like a French u than an English or Latin one), Claudius took the long eta (H) and cut it in half. The commonality is that both are front vowels (your tongue is up front in your mouth, not back like in 'a' and 'o'), but the upsilon sound is rounded (lips) and higher (jaw) than eta.

Apparently the Claudian letters are likely to be included in Unicode.

UPDATE: Check out Sauvage Noble's discussion of these letters here.


The Tensor said...

I'm pretty sure digamma refers to the fact that F looks like an upper-case gamma with an additional horizontal bar.

Also, don't mistake my wisecrack about "demieta" for the real name of the character, which as best I can tell is simply "half aitch". It would be interesting to know how the Big C referred to it in Latin, but the Wikipedia article doesn't have any references to primary sources.

gaetanus said...

Yes, the digamma really is just two gammas, one on top of the other. Remember that the distinction between the upper and lower case greek letters is a fairly late development, well after the digamma had dropped out.

King Alfred said...

Ah. Thanks for the origin of "digamma", guys. So it sounds like the 'di-' works in both its senses of "through" (dia) and "two" (duo/dis). Do we know for sure from somewhere that it's one or the other of these?

(I knew that was just your name for it, Tensor, but it seemed appropriate, and I needed to call it something. :-) Thanks again for the post.)

Gary Freedman said...

I'm just sorry the public schools failed me so miserably. I never learned about the alphabet missing certain letters during my entire 12 years in the public school system of Philadelphia.