The Letter A
By Allan Haley
No one knows why ‘A’ is the first letter of our alphabet. Some think it’s because this letter represents one of the most common vowel sounds in ancient languages of the western hemisphere. Other sources argue against this theory because there were no vowel sounds in the Phoenician language. (The Phoenician alphabet is generally thought to be the basis of the one we use today.)
No one also knows why the ‘A’ looks the way it does, but we can construct a fairly logical chain of events.
Later Greek Alpha
Some say the Phoenicians chose the head of an ox to represent the ‘A’ sound (for the Phoenicians, this was actually a glottal stop). The ox was a common, important animal to the Phoenicians. It was their main power source for heavy work. Oxen plowed the fields, harvested crops, and hauled food to market. Some sources also claim that the ox was often the main course at meals. A symbol for the ox would have been an important communication tool for the Phoenicians. It somewhat naturally follows that an ox symbol would be the first letter of the alphabet.
The Phoenicians first drew the ox head ‘A’ as a ‘V’ with a crossbar to distinguish the horns from the face. They called this letter “alef,” the Phoenician word for ox. Through centuries of writing (most of it quickly, with little care for maintaining detail) the alef evolved into a form that looked very different from the original ox head symbol. In fact, by the time it reached the Greeks in about 400 BC, it looked more like our modern ‘k’ than an ‘A’.
The Greeks further changed the alef. First, they rotated it 90° so that it pointed up; then they made the crossbar a sloping stroke. The Greeks also changed the letter name from alef to alpha. Finally, they made the crossbar a horizontal stroke and the letter looked almost as it does today.
The Romans received the Greek alphabet by way of the Etruscan traders of what is now northern Italy. While the Romans kept the design, they again changed the name of the first letter–this time to “ah.” The sound “ay,” our name for the ‘A,’ was not common to the Latin language.
The Roman capital letters have endured as the standard of proportion and dignity for almost 2,000 years. They’re also the basis of many of the lowercase designs. ‘A’ is the first letter. There are 25 more stories.
- 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.