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A letter is a segmental
symbol A symbol is a mark, sign, or word that indicates, signifies, or is understood as representing an idea, object, or relationship. Symbols allow people to go beyond what is known or seen by creating linkages between otherwise very different ...
of a
phonemic In phonology and linguistics, a phoneme () is a unit of sound that can distinguish one word from another in a particular language. For example, in most List of dialects of English, dialects of English, with the notable exception of the West M ...
writing system A writing system is a method of visually representing verbal communication, based on a script and a orthography, set of rules regulating its use. While both writing and spoken language, speech are useful in conveying messages, writing differs i ...
. The inventory of all letters forms an
alphabet An alphabet is a standardized set of basic written graphemes (called letter (alphabet), letters) that represent the phonemes of certain spoken languages. Not all writing systems represent language in this way; in a syllabary, each character ...
. Letters broadly correspond to
phoneme In phonology and linguistics, a phoneme () is a unit of sound that can distinguish one word from another in a particular language. For example, in most List of dialects of English, dialects of English, with the notable exception of the West M ...
s in the spoken form of the language, although there is rarely a consistent and exact correspondence between letters and phonemes. The word ''letter'', borrowed from
Old French Old French (, , ; Modern French: ) was the language spoken in most of the northern half of France from approximately the 8th to the 14th centuries. Rather than a unified language, Old French was a linkage of Romance dialects, mutually intel ...
''letre'', entered
Middle English Middle English (abbreviated to ME) is a form of the English language that was spoken after the Norman conquest of England, Norman conquest of 1066, until the late 15th century. The English language underwent distinct variations and developments ...
around 1200 AD, eventually displacing the
Old English Old English (, ), or Anglo-Saxon, is the earliest recorded form of the English language English is a West Germanic languages, West Germanic language of the Indo-European language family, with its earliest forms spoken by the inhabita ...
term (
bookstaff A letter is a segmental symbol of a Phonemic orthography, phonemic writing system. The inventory of all letters forms an alphabet. Letters broadly correspond to phonemes in the spoken language, spoken form of the language, although there is rarel ...
). ''Letter'' is descended from the Latin '' littera'', which may have descended from the Greek "διφθέρα" (, writing tablet), via Etruscan.


Definition and usage

A letter is a type of
grapheme In linguistics Linguistics is the scientific study of human language. It is called a scientific study because it entails a comprehensive, systematic, objective, and precise analysis of all aspects of language, particularly its nature a ...
, which is a functional unit in a writing system: a letter (or group of letters) represents visually a phoneme (a unit of sound that can distinguish one
word A word is a basic element of language Language is a structured system of communication. The structure of a language is its grammar and the free components are its vocabulary. Languages are the primary means by which humans communicate, ...
from another in a particular
language Language is a structured system of communication. The structure of a language is its grammar and the free components are its vocabulary. Languages are the primary means by which humans communicate, and may be conveyed through a variety of met ...
). Letters are combined to form written words, just as phonemes are combined to form spoken words. A sequence of graphemes representing a phoneme is called a
multigraph In mathematics, and more specifically in graph theory, a multigraph is a Graph (discrete mathematics), graph which is permitted to have multiple edges (also called ''parallel edges''), that is, Glossary of graph theory#Basics, edges that have t ...
. A digraph is a case of polygraphs consisting of two graphemes. Examples of digraphs in English include ''ch'', ''sh'', and ''th''. Some phonemes are represented by three letters, called a trigraph, such as ''sch'' in German. The same
letterform A letterform, letter-form or letter form, is a term used especially in typography, palaeography, calligraphy and epigraphy to mean a letter (alphabet), letter's shape. A letterform is a type of glyph, which is a specific, concrete way of writing ...
may be used in different alphabets but have different sounds. The letters , and look rather alike but are the Latin H, Greek eta and Cyrillic en respectively; conversely the letters , (
sigma Sigma (; uppercase Σ, lowercase Letter case is the distinction between the Letter (alphabet), letters that are in larger uppercase or capitals (or more formally ''majuscule'') and smaller lowercase (or more formally ''minuscule'') in the wr ...
) and ( Es (Cyrillic)) from these alphabets each represent (approximately) the same sound. The basic
Latin alphabet The Latin alphabet or Roman alphabet is the collection of letters originally used by the Ancient Rome, ancient Romans to write the Latin language. Largely unaltered with the exception of extensions (such as diacritics), it used to write Eng ...
is used by hundreds of languages around the world, but there are many other
alphabet An alphabet is a standardized set of basic written graphemes (called letter (alphabet), letters) that represent the phonemes of certain spoken languages. Not all writing systems represent language in this way; in a syllabary, each character ...
s.Specific names are associated with letters, which may differ with language, dialect, and history. '' Z'', for example, is usually called ''zed'' in all English-speaking countries except the US, where it is named ''zee''. As elements of alphabets, letters have prescribed orders, although this too may vary by language. In Spanish, for instance, is a separate letter, sorted separately from : this distinction is not usually recognised in English dictionaries. (In computer systems, each has its own unique
code point In character encoding Character encoding is the process of assigning numbers to Graphics, graphical character (computing), characters, especially the written characters of Language, human language, allowing them to be Data storage, stored, D ...
, and , respectively.) Letters may also have a numerical or quantitative value. This applies to
Roman numerals Roman numerals are a numeral system that originated in ancient Rome and remained the usual way of writing numbers throughout Europe well into the Late Middle Ages. Numbers are written with combinations of letters from the Latin alphabet, eac ...
and the letters of other writing systems. In English,
Arabic numerals Arabic numerals are the ten numerical digits: , , , , , , , , and . They are the most commonly used symbols to write Decimal, decimal numbers. They are also used for writing numbers in other systems such as octal, and for writing identifiers ...
are typically used instead of letters. Greek and Latin letters have a variety of modern uses in mathematics, science, and engineering. People and objects are sometimes named after letters, for one of these reasons: # The letter is an abbreviation, e.g. "G-man" as slang for a
Federal Bureau of Investigation The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is the domestic Intelligence agency, intelligence and Security agency, security service of the United States and its principal Federal law enforcement in the United States, federal law enforcement age ...
agent, arose as short for "Government Man" # Alphabetical order used as a counting system, e.g. Plan A, Plan B, etc.;
alpha ray Alpha particles, also called alpha rays or alpha radiation, consist of two protons and two neutrons bound together into a particle identical to a helium-4 atomic nucleus, nucleus. They are generally produced in the process of alpha decay, but may ...
,
beta ray A beta particle, also called beta ray or beta radiation (symbol β), is a high-energy, high-speed electron or positron emitted by the radioactive decay of an atomic nucleus during the process of beta decay. There are two forms of beta decay, β ...
,
gamma ray A gamma ray, also known as gamma radiation (symbol γ or \gamma), is a penetrating form of electromagnetic radiation arising from the radioactive decay of atomic nucleus, atomic nuclei. It consists of the shortest wavelength electromagnetic wav ...
, etc. # The shape of the letter, e.g. A-clamp, A-frame,
D-ring A D-ring is a D-shaped metal ring used primarily as a lashing point in a tie-down system. Depending on their function D-rings may vary in composition, geometry, weight, finish, and load capacity. They may be screwed or welded in place, or attache ...
, F-clamp, G-clamp, H-block,
H engine An H engine is a piston engine A reciprocating engine, also often known as a piston engine, is typically a heat engine that uses one or more Reciprocating motion, reciprocating pistons to convert high temperature and high pressure into a Ci ...
,
O-ring An O-ring, also known as a packing or a toric joint, is a mechanical gasket in the shape of a torus; it is a loop of elastomer with a round Cross section (geometry), cross-section, designed to be seated in a groove and compressed during assembl ...
,
R-clip __NOTOC__ An R-clip, also known as an R-pin, R-key, hairpin cotter pin, hairpin cotter,. bridge pin, hitch pin clip or spring cotter pin, is a fastener made of a durable but flexible material, commonly hardened metal wire, resembling the shape of ...
, S or Z twist,
U engine A U engine is a piston engine made up of two separate straight engines (complete with separate crankshafts) placed side-by-side and coupled to a shared output shaft. When viewed from the front, the engine block resembles the letter "U". Although ...
, U-bend,
V engine A V engine, sometimes called a Vee engine, is a common configuration for internal combustion engine An internal combustion engine (ICE or IC engine) is a heat engine in which the combustion of a fuel occurs with an oxidizer (usually air) in ...
, W engine, X engine,
Z-drive A Z-drive is a type of marine propulsion unit. Specifically, it is an azimuth thruster. The pod can rotate 360 degrees allowing for rapid changes in thrust direction and thus vessel direction. This eliminates the need for a conventional rudder. ...
, a river ''delta'', ''omega'' block # Other reasons, e.g.
X-ray An X-ray, or, much less commonly, X-radiation, is a penetrating form of high-energy electromagnetic radiation. Most X-rays have a wavelength ranging from 10 Picometre, picometers to 10 Nanometre, nanometers, corresponding to frequency, ...
after "''x'' the unknown" in
algebra Algebra () is one of the areas of mathematics, broad areas of mathematics. Roughly speaking, algebra is the study of mathematical symbols and the rules for manipulating these symbols in formulas; it is a unifying thread of almost all of mathem ...
, because the discoverer did not know what they were


History of alphabetic writing

Before alphabets, phonograms, graphic symbols of sounds were used. There were three kinds of phonograms: Verbal, pictures for entire words, Syllabic, which stood for articulations of words, and alphabetic, which represented signs or letters. The earliest examples of which are from Ancient Egypt and Ancient China, dating to around 3,000 BCE. The first consonantal alphabet emerged around 1800 BCE, representing the Phoenicians, Semitic workers in Egypt. Their script was originally written and read from right to left. From the Phoenician alphabet came the Etruscan and Greek alphabets. From there, the most widely used alphabet today emerged, Latin, which is written and read from left to right. The Phoenician alphabet had 22 letters, Nineteen of which the Latin alphabet used, and the Greek Alphabet, which was adapted around 900 BCE, added four letters to the Phoenician list. This Greek alphabet was the first to assign letters not only to
consonant In articulatory phonetics, a consonant is a speech sound that is articulated with complete or partial closure of the vocal tract. Examples are and pronounced with the lips; and pronounced with the front of the tongue; and pronounced ...
sounds, but also to
vowels A vowel is a syllabic speech sound pronounced without any stricture in the vocal tract. Vowels are one of the two principal classes of speech sounds, the other being the consonant In articulatory phonetics, a consonant is a speech sound ...
. The Roman Empire further developed and refined the Latin alphabet, beginning around 500 BCE. During the fifth and sixth centuries, the development of lowercase letters began to emerge in Roman writing. At this point, paragraphs, uppercase and lowercase letters, and the concept of sentences and clauses still haven't emerged, these final bits of development emerged in the late 7th and early 8th centuries. Finally, many slight letter additions and drops were made to the common alphabet used in the western world. Minor changes were made such as the removal of certain letters, such as '' thorn'' (Þ þ), ''
wynn Wynn or wyn (; also spelled wen, ƿynn, and ƿen) is a letter of the Old English Latin alphabet, Old English alphabet, where it is used to represent the sound . History The letter "W" While the earliest Old English texts represent this ...
'' (Ƿ ƿ), and '' eth'' (Ð ð).


Types of letters


Upper case and lower case

A letter can have multiple variants, or allographs, related to variation in style of
handwriting Handwriting is the writing Writing is a medium of human communication which involves the representation of a language through a system of physically Epigraphy, inscribed, Printing press, mechanically transferred, or Word processor, digit ...
or
printing Printing is a process for mass reproducing text and Printmaking, images using a master form or template. The earliest non-paper products involving printing include cylinder seals and objects such as the Cyrus Cylinder and the Cylinders of Nabo ...
. Some writing systems have two major types of allographs for each letter: an ''uppercase'' form (also called ''capital'' or ''
majuscule Letter case is the distinction between the Letter (alphabet), letters that are in larger uppercase or capitals (or more formally ''majuscule'') and smaller lowercase (or more formally ''minuscule'') in the written representation of certain lang ...
'') and a ''
lowercase Letter case is the distinction between the Letter (alphabet), letters that are in larger uppercase or capitals (or more formally ''majuscule'') and smaller lowercase (or more formally ''minuscule'') in the written representation of certain lang ...
'' form (also called ''minuscule''). Upper- and lowercase letters represent the same sound, but serve different functions in writing. Capital letters are most often used at the beginning of a sentence, as the first letter of a proper name or title, or in headers or inscriptions. They may also serve other functions, such as in the
German language German ( ) is a West Germanic languages, West Germanic language mainly spoken in Central Europe. It is the most widely spoken and Official language, official or co-official language in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and the Ita ...
where all
noun A noun () is a word that generally functions as the name of a specific object or set of objects, such as living creatures, places, actions, qualities, states of existence, or ideas.Example nouns for: * Organism, Living creatures (including people ...
s begin with capital letters. The terms ''uppercase'' and ''lowercase'' originated in the days of handset type for printing presses. Individual letter blocks were kept in specific compartments of drawers in a type case. Capital letters were stored in a higher drawer or upper case.


Diacritics

In most alphabetic scripts, diacritics (or accents) are a routinely used. English is unusual in not using them except for
loanword A loanword (also loan word or loan-word) is a word at least partly assimilated from one language (the donor language) into another language. This is in contrast to cognates, which are words in two or more languages that are similar because the ...
s from other languages or personal names (for example, '' naïve, Brontë''). The ubiquity of this usage is indicated by the existence of
precomposed character A precomposed character (alternatively composite character or decomposable character) is a Unicode entity that can also be defined as a sequence of one or more other characters. A precomposed character may typically represent a letter with a diacri ...
s for use with computer systems (for example , , , , .)


Examples of letters in writing systems

In the following table, letters from multiple different
writing systems A writing system is a method of visually representing verbal communication, based on a script and a orthography, set of rules regulating its use. While both writing and spoken language, speech are useful in conveying messages, writing differs i ...
are shown, to demonstrate the variety of letters used throughout the world.


See also

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


References


Inline citations


General references

* * *


Further reading

* Clodd, Edward (1904). ''The Story of the Alphabet.'' ew York McClure, Phillips & Co. * Daniels, Peter T, and William Bright, eds (1996). . * Fromkin, Victoria, Robert Rodman, and Nina Hyams (2014). ''An Introduction to Language'' (Tenth Ed.)''.'' oston Wadsworth Cengage. . * * Powell, Barry B. (1991). ''Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet.'' , . * Robinson, A (2003). "The Origins of Writing" in Crowley, David and Paul Heyer ''Communication in History : Technology, Culture, Society'' (Fourth Ed). oston Allyn and Bacon pp 34–40.


External links


Unicode Code Charts

Letters, Characters and Words Counter online
{{Authority control Alphabets Typography it:Lettera (alfabeto)