The Letter L
By Allan Haley
When the Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799, it sparked considerable interest among scholars and the general public. It was believed that this slab of black basalt, with its identical messages carved in Egyptian hieroglyphics, Egyptian demotic writing, and Greek script, could help unlock the mysteries of ancient Egypt.
The key resided in the oval-enclosed inscriptions on the stone, all referring to Egyptian rulers. The oval symbolized royalty, and the inscription within identified a particular ruler. The most frequently named ruler was Ptolemy; second in frequency was Kleopatra. The five letters that appear in both rulers’ names – P T O L E – were instrumental in deciphering the hieroglyphics.
So where did this useful L originate? The Egyptian equivalent of our L was first represented by the image of a lion. Over centuries, this image evolved into a much simpler hieratic character that became the basis of the letter we know today. When the Phoenicians developed their alphabet around 1000 B.C., the ‘el’ sound was depicted by several more-simplified versions of the hieratic symbol. Some were rounded and some were angular.
From this point in its history on, the L becomes a rather complicated character. It took on a variety of forms, sometimes simultaneously, in just about every alphabet in which it appeared. The Greeks alone had four versions. The Phoenicians called the letter lamedh, which meant “goad,” or a “lash.” Though a stretch of the imagination, a whip or lash can be seen in the basic shape of the Phoenician letter.
As they did with so many other letters, the Greeks borrowed the basic shape of the Phoenician letter, but made modifications to its design and name. They established the angular quality of the L.
The Romans adopted one of the Greek versions of the L, but even then the letter continued to evolve. The first Roman L looked more like an arrow pointing southwest, rather than the right angle of the current form. Over time, the letter evolved into the horizontal and vertical stroked character used on the monumental Trajan column – the same one we write 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.