By Allan Haley
The twenty-sixth letter of our alphabet was the seventh letter in the Semitic alphabet. They called the letter “za” (pronounced “zag”) and drew it as a stylized dagger. The Phoenicians used roughly the same graphic sign, which they called “zayin” and which also meant a dagger or weapon. A similar symbol turns up in various other cultures, all having the same meaning.
Around 1000 B.C. the Phoenician zayin became the Greek “zeta.” The Greek character looked more like a dagger than the zayin did, but it didn’t bear much resemblance to the Z we currently use. In fact, it looked a lot like our present capital I (especially as set in ITC Lubalin Graph, or another slab serif typeface).
The Romans adopted the zeta into their alphabet, but since the sound was not used in the Latin language the letter was eventually dropped, and the position of the seventh letter was given to the G. In fact, the Z might never have made it into our present-day alphabet, if not for a few stray Greek words that were incorporated into the Roman language after the Romans conquered the Greeks. In order to write these words a Z was required, and so, several centuries after it was first banished from the Roman alphabet, the Z was allowed to return. However, because the letter was not a part of the traditional Roman language, the Z was relegated to the last spot in the alphabetical hierarchy.
The Romans used the capital I form of the letter in their monumental inscriptions, but there are none to be found in the famous Trajan Column (since there are no Greek words inscribed there). It was only when the letter was written by scribes and calligraphers that the top and bottom strokes were offset from each other and connected by what became a diagonal, rather than vertical, stroke. The reason for this design change? Probably because it was quicker and easier to write. The lowercase ‘z’ is simply a smaller version of the capital, no doubt for the same reason.
- 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.