The Letter D
By Allan Haley
Much of our alphabet is built on a representational strategy called “acrophony” (from the Greek acro, meaning “uppermost; head” and phony, “sound”). Acrophony means indicating a sound through the use of a picture or name of something that begins with the same sound. Children’s alphabet books do this all the time; they might use a picture of a dog, say, to represent the sound of the letter D.
Early Greek Delta
Late Greek Delta
When the Egyptians used the symbol for a hand (their word “deret”) to indicate the sound value of “D,” it served its purpose adequately. However, when the Phoenicians adopted much of the Egyptian hieratic system of writing (a kind of abridged form of hieroglyphics), they didn’t know which objects many of the signs actually depicted. For example, it has been speculated that the symbol that represented a hand to the Egyptians looked like a drawing of a tent door to the Phoenicians. As a result, the Phoenicians called the character “daleth” – their word for “door.” Different object, same D sound.
The Greeks continued the acrophonic tradition, but rather blindly. Even without knowing the literal meanings of the symbols, the Greeks were content to adopt the Phoenician names (or something close to them) to represent the Greek versions of the same letterforms. Thus, the Phoenician “aleph” became “alpha,” “beth” became “beta,” and “daleth” evolved into “delta.”
Over time, the Phoenicians’ haphazard rendering of a door developed into the orderly, often symmetrical triangular Greek delta. Later in its evolutionary process, the triangular “D” was tipped to balance on one of its points. Still later, a rounded version of the basic shape came into use.
It was this softened version of the “D” that was adopted by the Etruscans, from whom the Romans borrowed their alphabet. The Romans further refined the “D” into the balanced and deceptively simple letter we use today.
- 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.