Letter by Letter: An Alphabetical Miscellany


24/06/08 – Select excerpts and notes from Laurent Pflughaupt’s Letter by Letter:


“Tracing back through the history of these abstract signs, which we manipulate and decipher unconsciously on a daily basis, is often like discovering their hidden or forgotten meanings. We find that today we still use capital letters whose structures are identical to the engraved capitals that date from the beginning of this era. We also discover that the design of our printed letters is based on Carolingian lowercase letters, which were rehabilitated and perfected seven centuries later by Florentine humanists.” (9)

“While the development of printing -a veritable cultural revolution- did not change man’s relation to the act of writing, the same cannot be said of the computer revolution. The rapid extension of networks -enhanced with sound, image, and movement- is being carried out to the detriment of writing, both in its orthographic and gestural values. In order to rediscover its authenticity and the values that form its power, writing must have its turn at exploring new directions.” (ibid.)


Cuneiform (end of 4th millennium BCE)

  • ancient Sumerian writing characterized by ‘nail-shaped’ or ‘wedge-shaped’ signs
  • imprints made into wet clay using a pointed instrument made from reeds
  • on average required the use of 600+ signs for its ideographic and syllabic forms
  • used to write the Epic of Gilgamesh (circa 1700 BCE)
  • Ugaritic alphabet (circa 1400 BCE) written using cuneiform but composed of 30 letters (plus a separator for vertical words) and acquiring a strictly phonetic and abstract value

Hieroglyphs (end of 4th millennium BCE)

  • 1) logograms (representing a word) 2) phonograms (marking a sound) i. uniliteral ii. biliteral iii. triliteral 3) determinatives (showing the domain of application for the accompanying word)
  • the uniliteral signs, about 30 characters each representing a single consonant, are considered the letters of the hieroglyphic alphabet
  • the Rosetta Stone (196 BCE) was key to deciphering hieroglyphics
  • demotic script developed early in the eighth century BCE

The Proto-Sinaitic Alphabet (circa 1700 BCE)

  • between 23 and 27 signs
  • some signs very close to Egyptian hieroglyphs
  • most likely served as the basis for the Phoenician alphabet system

The Phoenician Alphabet (between 1100 and 1050 BCE)

  • writing composed from right to left
  • consists of 22 letters, all of which are consonants and follow an order similar to the Ugaritic alphabet
  • served as the basis for the subsequent development of numerous other alphabets (Aramaic, Arabic, Indian, Greek)

The Greek Alphabet (mid. 8th century BCE)

  • Phoinikea grammata or Kadmeia grammata
  • the Phoenician consonants ALEPH, HE, HETH, YODH, AYIN and WAW became the Greek vowels: ALPHA, EPSILON, ETA, IOTA, OMICRON and UPSILON
  • five new signs added after TAU: upsilon, phi, chi, psi, and omega
  • the Ionian (eastern) alphabet had 24 letters when officially adopted by the city of Athens in 403 BCE
  • prior to 6th century BCE, composed right to left, left to right, or boustrophedon (alternating direction by line)
  • starting from the year 500 BCE, writing was systematically composed from left to right
  • Biblical Majuscule (or Biblical Uncial), a subsequent form of Greek script that appeared during the 3rd century CE, characterized by the letters being almost as wide as they are tall and strong contrast

The Etruscan Alphabet

  • still unable to fully decipher the Etruscan alphabet
  • 26 letters
  • four letters B, G, D, and O were never used in Etruscan texts
  • most often read from right to left, more rarely boustrophedon

The Latin Alphabet (7th century BCE)

  • developed from the western Greek and Etruscan alphabets
  • initially composed of 21 letters, later 24, today 26 letters, divided into 20 consonants and 6 vowels
  • beginning of 4th century written from left to right (archaic Latin writings were read boustrophedon or from right to left)
  • serifs, meant to reinforce the base of each sign and to improve their visual alignment, first appeared in the 2nd century BCE

Writing Styles

  • Rustica:
    • fine stems and thick bars
    • no word separation (scriptio continua)
  • Quadrata:
    • developed toward the end of the fourth century
    • R has fine and slightly slanted stem
    • scriptio continua
  • The Uncials (littera uncialis):
    • wide rounded uppercase letters
    • families: i. roman uncials ii. classic uncials (6th and 7th centuries) iii. artificial (or late) uncials (7th – 9th centuries): pronounced serifs and initial strokes
  • Carolingian (or Caroline) Minuscule:
    • Charlemagne decreed official use of this lowercase in 789
    • inspired the design of humanistic script (humanist minuscule or antiqua) of the Italian humanists in oppostition to Gothic forms
  • The Gothic Period:
    • quill tips cut at an angle (no longer perpendicular to the quill’s axis)
    • textura, rotunda, batarde, cursive and fraktur
  • Humanistic Round (littera antiqua):
    • developed in opposition to Gothic script and inspired by Carolingian minuscule
    • invented by the Florentine Giovanni Francesco Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459)
    • inspired the creation of Roman of which the uppercase was based on Roman Capitals
  • Humanistic Cursive (littera antiqua corsiva):
    • mostly used in the 15th and 16th centuries to record diplomatic acts and briefs issued by the Pontifical Chancellery
    • at first upright then leaning to the right
    • first texts written in this cursive were written shortly before 1420/In 1500, at the request of the great Venetian printer ldus Manutius (1449-1515), Francisco Griffo engraved the first italic characters based directly on cursive manuscripts. Baptized Aldine, this type style, better known today as italic [...]
  • English Style
  • Round Style
  • New Directions

II Formal Analysis

Strokes: a) Horizontal b) Vertical c) Direction of the Stroke d) Diagonal e) Curved

Angles: a) Acute b) Right c) Obtuse d) Rectangles e) The Golden Rectangle

Letter Anatomy: Structural Elements



III Letter by Letter

Letter by letter analysis

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Oliver Tomas

  • Design historian and archivist based in Vancouver, Canada.
  • info[at]olivertomas[dot]com