The Letter P
By Allan Haley
New words are being invented all the time to keep up with changes in technology and daily life. This may have been one of the reasons the Phoenicians came up with the innovative notion of a phonetic alphabet: one in which the letters represented sounds. It was an elegant and practical idea, and it’s obviously had a huge impact on the nature of writing to this day.
Phoenician Pe derived from Sumerian
A pictorial written language worked fine for the earlier Egyptian culture. For example, to the Ancient Egyptians, a picture of a man with a weapon clearly meant warrior. But in the more complicated society of the Phoenicians, the distinction between merchant and money-lender was not so easy to represent with an illustration. To address this problem, the Phoenicians worked out a modified picture-based alphabet. Now each picture did not represent the object itself, but rather, one of the sounds in the name of the object depicted.
The letter P is a perfect example. In Egyptian hieroglyphics, a drawing of a mouth would have meant just that: a mouth, or perhaps someone talking. In the Phoenician alphabet, the symbol of a mouth represented the sound of its Phoenician name, “pe.”
The Phoenician P actually had two forms. One had a rounded shape that looked a little like an upside-down J, and the other was a more angular form derived from a Sumerian symbol. The Greeks borrowed the sign from the Phoenicians, but here things get a little confusing. What looks like our P in the Greek language was actually their symbol for the 'r’ sound, while their 'p’ sound was represented by a more geometric, asymmetrical shape. This character was then further modified, and as the Greeks were compelled to do, made symmetrical. The final outcome was the sign they called Pi.
The Romans inherited their more rounded P, which looked much like the earlier Phoenician sign, through the Etruscans. In time the Romans turned the letter around and, in the process, developed the monumental P that is the prototype of all forms of our letter.
- 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.