Letters U, V, W and Y
By Allan Haley
The story of U is also the story of our V, W and Y. In fact, the origins of U even have something in common with the F, the sixth letter of our alphabet.
It all starts with an Egyptian hieroglyph that depicted a creature the Egyptians called Cerastes (the creature resembled a giant snake or dragon). This mark represented a consonant sound roughly equivalent to that of our F and was, in turn, the forerunner of the Phoenician “waw.” Certainly the most prolific of the Phoenician letters, the waw ultimately gave birth to our F, U, V, W, and Y.
Sometime between 900 B.C. and 800 B.C. the Greeks adopted the Phoenician waw. They used it as the basis for not one, but two letters in their alphabet: “upsilon,” signifying the vowel ‘u’ sound, and “digamma,” for the ‘f’ sound. Upsilon was also used by the Etruscans and then the Romans, both for the semiconsonantal ‘w’ sound and the vowel ‘u’, but the form of the letter looked more like a Y than either a U or a V.
In ancient Rome the sounds of U, V, and W, as we currently know them, were not systematically distinguished. Context usually determined the correct pronunciation. As a result, the Roman sharp-angled monumental capital V was pronounced both as a ‘w’ in words like VENI (pronounced “way-nee”) and as the vowel ‘u’ in words like IVLIUS (pronounced as “Julius”).
And what happened to the Y? After the Roman conquest of Greece in the first century B.C., the Romans began to use some Greek words. They added the Greek Y to the Latin alphabet to accommodate these new additions to their vocabulary. But the sound value given to Y by the Greeks was unknown in the Latin language; when the Romans used it in adopted Greek words it took on the same sound as the letter I.
In the Medieval period, two forms of the U (one with a rounded bottom and one that looked like our V) represented the ‘v’ sound. It wasn’t until relatively modern times that the angular V was exclusively retained to represent our ‘v’ sound, and the version with the rounded bottom was left with the single job of representing the vowel ‘u’.
As for the graphic form of W, it was created by the Anglo-Saxons, more or less during the 13th century. Sensibly, they tried to distinguish among the various sounds represented by the inherited letter when they wrote it down. So, though they used a V for both the ‘u’ and ‘v’ sounds, they wrote the V twice for the ‘w’ sound. Eventually the two Vs were joined to form a single character, called “wen.” This early ligature stuck and became part of the common alphabet rather than an accessory.
The French, rather than use a foreign letter in their alphabet, preferred to double one of their own characters. They chose the U and called the letter “double vay.” To the English it became a “double U.”
- 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.