The Letter F
By Allan Haley
In its earliest years, the letter that evolved into our F was an Egyptian hieroglyph that literally was a picture of a snake. This was around 3,000 B.C. Through the process of simplification over many years, the F began to lose its snakelike character, and by the time it emerged as an Egyptian hieratic form it wasn’t much more than a vertical stroke capped by a small crossbar. With a slight stretch of the imagination, it could be said to look like a nail.
This may be why the Phoenicians called the letter “waw,” a word meaning nail or hook, when they adapted the symbol for their alphabet. In its job as a waw, the character represented a semi-consonant sound, roughly pronounced as the W in the word “know.” However, at various times the waw also represented the ‘v’ and sometimes even the ‘u’ sound.
When the Greeks assimilated the Phoenician alphabet, they handled the confusing waw with typically Greek logic: they split it into two characters. One represented the semi-consonant W and the other became the forerunner of our V. (The ‘w’ sound became the Greek digamma, or double gamma, and was constructed by placing one gamma on top of another.)
While the character was eventually dropped from the Greek alphabet, it was able to find work in the Etruscan language. Here it did yeoman’s service until the Romans adopted it as a symbol for the softened ‘v’ or double ‘v’ sound. Even today, the German language (an important source for English) uses the V as an F in words like “vater,” which means father and is pronounced “fahter.”
Finally, the F found a permanent home as the very geometric sixth letter of the Roman alphabet.
- Allan Haley is Director of Words & Letters at Monotype Imaging. Here he is responsible for strategic planning and creative implementation of just about everything related to typeface designs. He is also responsible for editorial content for the company’s type libraries and Web sites.
- Prior to working for Monotype, Mr. Haley was Principal of Resolution, a consulting firm with expertise in fonts, font technology, type and typographic communication. He was also executive vice president of International Typeface Corporation.
- Mr. Haley is ex officio Chairman of the Board of the Society of Typographic Aficionados, and past President of the New York Type Directors Club. He is highly regarded as an educator and is a frequently requested speaker at national computer and design conferences.
- Mr. Haley is also a prolific writer, with five books on type and graphic communication and hundreds of articles for graphic design publications to his credit.