As a graphic designer/illustrator/nerd I've always been curious about letter-forms and where they came from. The letter A can trace its ancestry back thousands of years to an ancient Egyptian hieroglyph depicting an ox's head. From here it began an interesting journey around the Mediterranean and beyond...
This has glottal stop
People in the Sinai region re-purposed Egyptian hieroglyphs to represent consonants in their own simplified writing system. One of the sounds in their language was a glottal stop*, and one common word that began with a glottal stop was (roughly) ’aleph, which meant ox — so the the ox-head hieroglyph became the letter of choice to represent a glottal stop.
* A glottal stop is basically when your vocal chords close — it's what your throat does when you say Hawai‘i. It's technically a consonant but we don't include it in the English alphabet.
’Aleph made its way to Phoenicia where it was simplified yet again. It looked a little bit like the modern letter K, but the ox's face and horns are still recognisable. This is where the familiar, triangular, uppercase A shape began to take form.
Putting the alpha into alphabet
The ancient Greeks based their alphabet on the Phoenician script. Greek writing didn't really require a glottal stop, so ’aleph was once again re-named, re-designed and re-purposed, this time to represent a vowel — alpha.
The ox returns
Greek was first written from right-to-left, but for a while it was written boustrophedon, which roughly meant 'like an ox turning', because the text was read in alternating directions like an ox ploughing a field. As the writing direction flipped so too did the letters, which sounds confusing but it would have been even more difficult to read if the letters didn't flip. It eventually became exclusively left-to-right and the letters flipped for good.
Name's a bit long though, isn't it
The Etruscans played a big part in importing the Greek alphabet (along with Greek gods, food, architecture and more) into the Italic region. They made a few changes, which may have included shortening the name of the letter alpha to simply ā.
The Rise of the Roman A
The Etruscan alphabet was then adopted by their neighbours, the Latins, and a group of people called the Romans. They refined it and developed the uppercase A shape we still use today.
I rest my uppercase
I guess that explains uppercase A, but what about the two types of lowercase a? Why do we have two types of lowercase a? Why do we have lowercase letters at all? … To be continued!