By Allan Haley
Four thousand years ago, just as today, people who could not write used a simple cross to sign letters and formal documents. In fact, the first name for this ancient symbol actually meant “mark” or “sign.”
One might logically assume that this common signature stand-in was the origin of our present X. But that’s not the case. Instead, what looked like an X to ancient writers eventually gave birth to the Roman T.
How did that happen? Let’s go back to around 1000 B.C. During this time, the Phoenicians and other Semitic tribes used a variety of crossed forms to represent the letter they called “taw.” This letter, one of the first recorded, served two purposes: it represented the ‘t’ sound, and it provided a mark for signing documents that could be used by those who could not write their names.
When the Greeks adopted the taw for their alphabet ten centuries later, they altered it slightly until it looked pretty much like what our T looks like today. The Greeks called this letter “tau.” The tau was passed on, virtually unchanged, from the Greeks to the Etruscans, and finally to the Romans.
- 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.