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Author Topic: Why do letters have names?  (Read 5003 times)

Offline DoctorBeaver

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Why do letters have names?
« on: 13/06/2006 16:28:21 »
How did it arise?

I can imagine it... "This shape C is pronounced K but we'll call it SEE". Eh? Where's the sense in that? Wouldn't it have been far more logical, and a lot easier, to have simply stuck with the phonetics of the letter?

So when spelling, for instance, the word "SPELL" you would pronounce the letters rather than saying "Ess, pee, ee, ell, ell". I just don't see the point in them having names & I can't think how it may have started. Does anyone know?

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another_someone

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Re: Why do letters have names?
« Reply #1 on: 13/06/2006 17:00:23 »
quote:
Originally posted by DoctorBeaver
How did it arise?

I can imagine it... "This shape C is pronounced K but we'll call it SEE". Eh? Where's the sense in that? Wouldn't it have been far more logical, and a lot easier, to have simply stuck with the phonetics of the letter?

So when spelling, for instance, the word "SPELL" you would pronounce the letters rather than saying "Ess, pee, ee, ell, ell". I just don't see the point in them having names & I can't think how it may have started. Does anyone know?



Not sure that I can give a complete answer to the question, but more of a wider context.

Firstly, what you refer to is not unique to English, but is common to all written languages, both alphabetic and ideographic.  All languages give the shape of their letters a name that is distinct from their linguistic value.

From the point of view of someone laying out written text, whether they be a scribe, or a printer laying out type, it makes sense to assign names to the shapes that can be considered independently of their meaning.  If a typesetter wants to place a letter 'Y' in a particular position in the printed text, he wants to be able to unambiguously describe the shape of letter he wants, and does not want something that simply has a particular phonetic value, but something that has exactly that particular shape.

Another factor is that printing technology has crossed borders in a different manner, and evolved at a different speed, to ordinary language.  The craftsmen who were specialist in written or printed text (printers, scribes, engravers, etc.) were often skilled in many languages, may have crossed borders or exchanged ideas with people from different lands.  To them, they could often call upon ideas from Italy, France, England, etc.; and yet the same letters would often have very different phonetic interpretations in each language (just as the letters have changed their phonetic usage even within a single language).

Not only is there the problem that the phonetic usage may be different in different languages, but they are often ambiguous within a single language (is 'c' an 'k as in 'calculate', or a 's' as in 'centre'; and is 'x' a 'z as in 'xylophone', or a 'ks' as in 'mix'; and what about the wide variety of phonetic values assigned to vowels, about 20 sounds assigned to 5 or 6 letters, depending upon whether a 'y' is used as a vowel or a consonant?), and even if they are unambiguous, they are often difficult to discriminate (how would you express an 'h', which is almost silent on its own), so using longer words to describe the letter makes it less ambiguous to identify (this is taken to even greater extremes when one talks about the phonetic alphabet, where the word 'spell' would be 'Sierra', 'Papa', 'Echo', 'Lima', 'Lima').



George
« Last Edit: 13/06/2006 17:33:40 by another_someone »
 

Offline DoctorBeaver

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Re: Why do letters have names?
« Reply #2 on: 14/06/2006 21:44:38 »
quote:

Firstly, what you refer to is not unique to English, but is common to all written languages, both alphabetic and ideographic.  All languages give the shape of their letters a name that is distinct from their linguistic value.



Chinese? Japanese? In those languages the ideograph is known by its sound even though that sound can mean different things depending on various rules.

quote:
From the point of view of someone laying out written text, whether they be a scribe, or a printer laying out type, it makes sense to assign names to the shapes that can be considered independently of their meaning. If a typesetter wants to place a letter 'Y' in a particular position in the printed text, he wants to be able to unambiguously describe the shape of letter he wants, and does not want something that simply has a particular phonetic value, but something that has exactly that particular shape.


Why does it? What's the difference between saying I want a "yuh" and "I want a 'why'"? Yes, I appreciate that some letters have more than 1 sound; but the Greek alphabet got around that, as did the Cyrillic. Furthermore, many languages use extra symbols when the basic sound of the letter is altered - such as the accents in French, umlaut in German, cydilla in French & Spanish etc. I cannot see the point in saying "yoo umlaut" when pronouncing the sound indicates exactly which letter is required.

I don't really see that the printing press has anything to do with it. Letters having names pre-dates the press by hundreds of years (the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, for instance, have names).

In any case, in most ancient alphabets of which I am aware, the letters each have only 1 sound. The earliest alphabet I know of in which the letters can have more than 1 sound is the Scandinavian Futhark (Runes). That evolved from the Elder Futhark (Germanic) in which each letter had only 1 sound. The Elder had 24 letters, the Scandinavian had 16 in the older version and 13 in the later even though there were more individual sounds. The British Futhark, on the other hand, had over 30 Runes to accomodate all the sounds in the language. The Runes had names, but that may have been the result of their mystical connection where each Rune represented a concept; e.g. Feoh, the 1st letter, means "cow".

But my question is not how did the use of letter names such as "ay", "bee", "see" etc. become widespread, but why/how did it start?

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another_someone

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Re: Why do letters have names?
« Reply #3 on: 14/06/2006 22:47:18 »
quote:
Originally posted by DoctorBeaver
Chinese? Japanese? In those languages the ideograph is known by its sound even though that sound can mean different things depending on various rules.



As I understand it, a Chinese ideograph has no particular sound value, since every dialect of Chinese will have a different sound value associated with the ideograph, and the only thing they agree about is the abstract meaning behind the character, not its sound value.

quote:

I don't really see that the printing press has anything to do with it. Letters having names pre-dates the press by hundreds of years (the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, for instance, have names).



As you say, Hebrew has names for the letters in its alphabet, but the letters were not invented by the Hebrews, but was inherited from the Phoenicians, which itself is inherited from a Proto-Canaanite alphabet, which possibly derived from a partially ideographic Egyptian character set.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proto-Canaanite_alphabet
quote:

The names of the letters, which survive in the Greek and Hebrew alphabets, were probably already present. The names are based on an acrophonic principle, presumably from Semitic translations of the names of Egyptian hieroglyphs. For example, Egyptian nt (water) became Semitic mu (water), ultimately evolving into Latin M, while Egyptian drt (hand) became Semitic kapp (hand), and ultimately Latin K.


One reconstruction of 22 letters, based on Proto-Canaanite's better-attested successors Phoenician, and its sibling South Arabian, follows, along with the Latin descendants,
Code: [Select]
1.[#702;] #702;alp "ox" (A)
2.[ b] bet "house" (B)
3.[g] gaml "throwstick" (C, G)
4.[d] digg "fish" (D)
5.[h] haw / hll "jubilation" (E)
6.[w] waw "hook" (F, U, V, W, Y)
7.[z] zen /ziqq "manacle" (Z)
8.[#7717;] #7717;et (H)
9.[#7789;] #7789;#275;t (#920;) "wheel"
10.[y] yad "arm" (I, J)
11.[k] kap "hand" (K)
12.[l] lamd "goad" (L)
13.[m] mem "water" (M)
14.[n] na#7717;š "snake" (N)
15.[s] samek "fish"
16.[#703;] #703;en "eye" (O)
17.[p] pi#702;t "corner" (P)
18.[#7779; ] #7779;ad "plant"
19.[q] qup (Q)
20.[r] ra#702;s "head" (R)
21.[š] šimš "sun, the Uraeus" (S)
22.[t] taw "signature" (T)



I referred to printers, but only as one of a class of professionals who use written text, a class of professionals that includes scribes and engravers, both of which are old established professions that go back to the dawn of the written text.  Printing is merely a means of mass producing what scribes and engravers did before (and, in fact, the first printers would simply have engraved the letters onto a block before covering the block in ink and creating the printed impression on the page).

quote:
Originally posted by DoctorBeaver
In any case, in most ancient alphabets of which I am aware, the letters each have only 1 sound.



In general, written and spoken languages deviate as time progresses, so the closer to the point at which a written language is introduced, in general, the less divergence between the written and spoken languages.  German is more phonetic than English because a unified German State, and thus a unified German spelling, is a relatively modern introduction.

The problem with ancient languages is either the language existed for a prolonged period of time, in which case you have to decide which point in time you look at the language (medieval Latin was very different from the Latin of the 3rd century BC), or else you are talking about a language that does not have a long history, and thus one may assume that the written language was a fairly recent (in the context of the time when we have a written history of the culture) innovation in the culture.



George
« Last Edit: 14/06/2006 22:49:17 by another_someone »
 

Offline DoctorBeaver

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Re: Why do letters have names?
« Reply #4 on: 15/06/2006 03:07:06 »
quote:
As I understand it, a Chinese ideograph has no particular sound value, since every dialect of Chinese will have a different sound value associated with the ideograph, and the only thing they agree about is the abstract meaning behind the character, not its sound value.


The actual way they pronounce it is irrelevant to the point I was making. Be a particular ideograph called bong in 1 dialect and bing in another, it is still known by how it is pronounced.

 
quote:
In general, written and spoken languages deviate as time progresses, so the closer to the point at which a written language is introduced, in general, the less divergence between the written and spoken languages. German is more phonetic than English because a unified German State, and thus a unified German spelling, is a relatively modern introduction.


I'm not convinced by that. High German goes back a long way before Germany became a unified state and is just as phonetic as modern German.

 
quote:
The problem with ancient languages is either the language existed for a prolonged period of time, in which case you have to decide which point in time you look at the language (medieval Latin was very different from the Latin of the 3rd century BC), or else you are talking about a language that does not have a long history, and thus one may assume that the written language was a fairly recent (in the context of the time when we have a written history of the culture) innovation in the culture.


I don't see how that would influence what the letters are called. At whatever point in a language's development the written form originated, the letters were given names that in many cases bear no resemblance to the way they are pronounced.

The point that was made about the names having been derived from the names of ideographs is very reasonable and could well be the answer I was looking for. Thank you for that.

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another_someone

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Re: Why do letters have names?
« Reply #5 on: 16/06/2006 00:56:50 »
quote:
Originally posted by DoctorBeaver
I don't see how that would influence what the letters are called. At whatever point in a language's development the written form originated, the letters were given names that in many cases bear no resemblance to the way they are pronounced.



What I was trying to say was that even if at some time in the past the letters had represented the phonetics of the language, they would in any case have long since diverged from the original phonetics of the language as the phonetics of the spoken language would have changed.

In fact, it seems that the names of the characters have retained consistency even as the characters have migrated across spoken languages (which was my other point about early users of written text operating across languages).



George
« Last Edit: 16/06/2006 00:59:47 by another_someone »
 

Offline ukmicky

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Re: Why do letters have names?
« Reply #6 on: 16/06/2006 01:33:14 »
quote:
Originally posted by DoctorBeaver

How did it arise?

I can imagine it... "This shape C is pronounced K but we'll call it SEE". Eh? Where's the sense in that? Wouldn't it have been far more logical, and a lot easier, to have simply stuck with the phonetics of the letter?

So when spelling, for instance, the word "SPELL" you would pronounce the letters rather than saying "Ess, pee, ee, ell, ell". I just don't see the point in them having names & I can't think how it may have started. Does anyone know?

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it just happened,not everything in life makes sense.some things just happen

To some people I often make no sense , but to me it can be perfectly good sense:)

Michael
« Last Edit: 16/06/2006 01:34:41 by ukmicky »
 

Offline Roy P

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Re: Why do letters have names?
« Reply #7 on: 17/06/2006 22:56:21 »
It certainly appears that the letter 'H'; correct pronunciation 'Aitch', has evolved into a 'Haitch' pronunciation. Even the BBC do it!

There's also that annoying habit of using 'of' instead of 'have', as in; 'I could of gone there.'

I could go on :-)

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Offline rosalind dna

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Why do letters have names?
« Reply #8 on: 30/05/2008 12:15:46 »
Also it is one way to teach young children, how to read, write and spell initially or with Phonetics. I did that with my youngest niece and nephew some years ago.

But it is useful if I have to explain an address or similar over phone. The emergency services use that loads.
 

Offline DoctorBeaver

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Why do letters have names?
« Reply #9 on: 30/05/2008 19:28:27 »
Where the hell did you dig this thread up from? It's 2 years old!
 

Offline rosy

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Why do letters have names?
« Reply #10 on: 01/06/2008 12:52:14 »
I imagine it was dug up by being the random thread on the forum frontpage...
 

Offline rosalind dna

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Why do letters have names?
« Reply #11 on: 01/06/2008 12:55:06 »
No I was looking for something else, but found this. Anyway lamguage is in daily usage as now. So it's relevant whenever??
 

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Why do letters have names?
« Reply #11 on: 01/06/2008 12:55:06 »

 

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