The Letter N
By Allan Haley
The early form of the N was always closely associated with water. When the sign was used by the Phoenicians more than three thousand years ago, it was called “nun” (pronounced noon), which meant fish. Before the Phoenicians, the Egyptian hieroglyph (or picture sign) for the ‘n’ sound was a wavy line representing water.
Around the 10th century B.C., the Greeks began adopting parts of the Phoenician alphabet as their own. In this way, they not only acquired the shape of the Phoenician nun, they also preserved its name – to a point. Although the Phoenician character’s name was meaningless to the Greeks, its initial sound became the sound that the sign represented. The Phoenician nun thus became the Greek “nu.”
The squiggly nu doubtlessly upset those organized, rational Greek minds, thus obliging them to redesign the character slightly to suit their sensibilities. First, they tried to give the angled strokes stability by making the last one a strong vertical support. But this made the letter (gasp!) asymmetrical! Obviously, this would not do, so the Greeks extended the other vertical stroke and made the two parallel.
The Greek N passed on to the Romans with virtually no change in the basic design. Over time, however, subtle changes were made to all the letters the Romans borrowed from the Greeks, and the N was no exception.
At first, the Romans, like the Greeks, incised their letters directly in stone, or inscribed them in soft clay. These early letters had no variation in stroke thickness and lacked most of the curved strokes we have come to associate with the Roman alphabet. In the first century A.D., however, stonecutters began to paint the letters on stone prior to cutting them with hammer and chisel. It was this pre-drawing process that gave our current alphabet its variance in stroke weight, rich flowing curves and, ultimately, serifs. During this evolutionary change, the N’s outside strokes became thinner and serifs were added.
- 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.