The Letter S
By Allan Haley
Any way you look at it, the S is a complicated letter. Not only is it one of the more challenging characters to draw, but the story of its evolution has more twists, turns, and reverses than its shape.
The serpentine saga of our 19th letter gets its first false start with the early Egyptians and their hieroglyph for the ‘s’ sound, which was a drawing of a sword. Later, in the Egyptians’ hieratic writing, the sword was simplified until it looked more like a short piece of barbed wire than a weapon of war. When the Phoenicians built their alphabet on the Egyptian model, they rotated the piece of barbed wire 90 degrees and called it “sameth,” which meant a post. The Greeks adopted this letter but not as a true ‘s’ sound. Consider this a major reversal in the evolutionary road.
At the same time that the Egyptians were using the symbol of a sword to represent the ‘s’ sound, they also used a drawing that represented a field of land to represent the ‘sh’ sound. Like other hieroglyphs, the field symbol was simplified during the transition to hieratic writing. But unfortunately for the Egyptian scribes, the symbol’s usage became more complex. The reason? The Egyptians allowed as many as nine different versions of the symbol to exist at the same time. There were so many, in fact, that one wonders how they kept track.
The Phoenicians dropped most of these Egyptian ‘sh’ characters and settled on something that looked like our W to represent the ‘sh’ sound in their language (the symbol, aptly, represented teeth). The Phoenicians called their version of the letter “shin” or “sin.”
The Greeks borrowed the shin from the Phoenicians but drew it with three, four, and sometimes even five strokes. In some cases it hardly resembled the original Phoenician symbol, but in each the basic zigzag shape of the letter was maintained. In its final Greek form the character became the sigma, which resembles our present capital M lying on its side.
The Romans used a form of the sigma, which omitted the lower horizontal stroke of the character and made it look a little like a backward Z. Over time, the Romans changed the sharp angles of the sigma into softer, rounded forms and finalized the letter into its current graceful shape.
Does the story of the S end here, with the ancient Romans? Not quite; there are still a few twists and turns left. In English manuscripts of the 17th century, a lowercase version of the letter was modified to look remarkably like our lowercase f and stood for the long ‘s’ sound. Even today, the German language uses a letter which resembles a capital B (probably made up of a long and a short s), to represent the double lowercase s in words like “Strasse” and “weiss.”