History of the Spanish alphabet

Learn about where the Spanish alphabet comes from. An alphabet that is derived from Latin but with some additions of its own.

Spanish Alphabet by Gabrielle Cooper-WeiszFundación Antonio de Nebrija

The Latin alphabet

The letters that the Romans used to write Latin came from the Greek alphabet, albeit indirectly via the Etruscans. Groups of Etruscans settled in the Italian Peninsula in the early part of the first millennium BCE.

The letters «Y» and «Z», remnants of Greek

The Latin alphabet consisted of 21 letters, all of which were capitals, as there were no lower case letters in the Classical Latin script. After Rome conquered Greece, Latin borrowed a lot of Greek words, gaining the letter y and rediscovering the letter z in the process.

The letter «G», an invention from the 3rd century BCE.

The letter «C» was also used in Latin to represent the phoneme /g/ (VIRGO, for example, would be written as VIRCO). In the 3rd century BCE, a stroke was added to the lower outer part of a «C» to make a «G».

The new Spanish letters

There are four Spanish letters that were not part of the original Latin alphabet: «U», «J», «Ñ», and «W». Strictly speaking, these aren't new symbols, as they are either the result of letters undergoing graphic modifications or of existing double letters (or digraphs) becoming single ones.

1. The letter «U»

The «U» shape was a variant of the letter «V», appearing in ordinary Latin script as the handwritten form became rounder. For a long time, both variations were used interchangeably for the vowel and consonant phonemes.

2. The letter «J»

The same thing happened with the letters «J» and «I», which were also used interchangeably for a long time. As these two letters became separate, this relationship was reflected by «J» appearing next to «I» in the alphabet. Similarly, the letter «U» was placed next to «V».

3. The letter «Ñ»

The letter «Ñ» was originally an abbreviation of «NN», the digraph chosen by medieval Spanish to represent the new nasal palatal phoneme «eñe» (or enye in English), which hadn't existed in Latin. These double letters were often abbreviated to a single «N» with a tilde above it.

4. The letter «W»

In 1969, the letter «W» became the last letter to be included in the Spanish alphabet. Formed by doubling the Latin letter «V», it was used to represent one of the typical phonemes found in Germanic languages. Spanish then borrowed this letter, initially using it for proper nouns.

Letters and their names

Along with the letters themselves, Spanish also inherited their names from Latin. These names are essentially phonetic as they are based on each letter's typical sound. Added later were the sounds for «H» (called «hache» in Spanish), «J» («jota» in Spanish, with the« j» pronounced like the «ch» in the Scottish word "loch") …

… «V» (uve in Spanish), and «W» («uve doble» in Spanish, literally meaning double «V»).

Letters with various names

In Spanish, the letters with the most different names are «W», «V», and «B». In Spain, the name for the letter «B», for example, is «be»—pronounced like the English word «bay»—but in Latin America, it can be called «be larga», «be grande», or «be alta», all of which mean «big b». Other letters that have more than one name are «Y», «I», «R», and «Z».

Credits: Story

With information taken from Spanish Language Spelling (Ortografía de la Lengua Española) published by the Association of Spanish Language Academies and the Royal Spanish Academy.
Illustrations by Gabrielle Cooper-Weisz

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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