Modding the Latin Alphabet: the odd history of G, J, U, W, Y

The 26 letters of the Latin alphabet, handed
down to us from Ancient Rome and fitted, albeit imperfectly, to our English tongue. Wait,
not so fast. That’s wrong. This was the Latin alphabet. The rest of these were just
crafted by some clever oldschool modders. Yes, it’s true. Your G’s, J’s, U’s,
W’s, and Y’s don’t have the ancient pedigree of the rest of your alphabet. But
what they lack in antiquity, they more than make up for in scrappiness. This is their
story. G was the first to emerge. Long ago, Greek
/g/ made its way to Italy and turned into Latin C. But in early Latin, the C actually
stood for the sound /g/ and the sound /k/. Worse still, the one letter you might think
could straighten things out here between /k/ and /g/ and let us differentiate them, that
valiant K, well… that was going out of fashion. But C was still hanging on, k-ing and g-ing
along. To linguists, that’s sensible. They can tell you all about how these two velar
stops actually share most of their features, and they just differ in one little thing:
voicing. But to everyday Romans, that’s little consolation. The difference was confusing.
And dangerous. I mean, does this say “he’s milking it” or does it mean “let him beat
it up”? Who knows! I mean it’s all C’s! All C’s!! Calm down. And open the door. Because here
enters Spurius Carvilius Ruga, a former slave that ran his own private school 2200 years
ago. Frustrated with this two-faced C and unable to even write his own name clearly,
the story goes that he tacked on an extra stroke, creating a new G, and forever setting
C apart from G. An amazing stroke of genius! Heh… Well if C can have a companion, why can’t “U”?
Well, the only U around was actually V, from older Greek upsilon. More on that in a second.
Greek words staged a fashionable Latin comeback a little after the birth of G, and educated
writers wanted a fancy way to write this strange Greek “u”, with its very un-Roman /y/
sound. So they borrowed upsilon again, a new upsilon, a second upsilon, a Greek Y. Even
today in English, Greek words like “system” have the new letter, a letter missing from
plain old Latin words. Tweaking Cs and borrowing Ys is lightweight
compared to what comes next. The Middle Ages saw the rise of a new letter: i with a tail
below it. While it was originally a different look, not a different letter, “tailed i” gave
Medieval European languages a way to set j apart from i. And that’s important, because if we roll
this story back to the Romans, we see an overburdened letter “i” that had to play both roles.
Take the Latin word for “young”. Just take it. That first “i” was a /j/ sound, but the
last one’s the vowel /i/. Similar enough, but, linguistically, that means “i” is trying
its hardest to be both a vowel /i/ and a consonant /j/. Add in our swishy tail, and this serifed
“j” comes to the rescue as our consonant, leaving “i” just as a vowel. So /juwenis/. But that’s not good enough. There’s another
confusing letter hiding in that word, and it’s the next one on our change list. Like
“i”, the Latin letter “V” covers two sounds: a vowel /u/, and a consonant /w/,
what we’d call “double-u”. And that’s why we like IVVENIS, because it
has both of them in a row! Never fear, we can sort this out. Just round out the bottom
of that V, and, what do you know? It’s the vowel “u”. Hooray! But this change actually took centuries. In
older manuscripts, the “u” is still used as a variant of “v” for both /v/ and /u/.
Eventually, after a long sell, by the end of the 1700’s the two were treated as two
totally different letters. Finally, we’ve arrived. So we have a better way to write IVVENIS!
But listen to Old Cicero’s pronunciation of that “v” – /w/, he says, /w/! So I
glossed over that change when I said that V ended up standing for both /v/ and /u/,
but, early on, that /w/ pronunciation shifted to something pretty close to – but not exactly
like – our “v”. So by the time little Henry the VIII was studying his Latin, that
V had long been a /v/. Seriously Henry? Fine, yes, this book is yours. Have it! Huhh. Well, speaking of Englishmen, when early Germanic
languages like Old English dressed themselves in the Latin alphabet, they asked about their
newfound garb, “hey, where’s the letter for my /w/ sound?” And it didn’t answer
them back. Since it’s an inanimate metaphor. Germanic speakers had already learned to get
what they want when Rome was being withholding. No exception here. They cobbled together a
new letter of their own by taking that V and putting it next to another V. Don’t forget
though that “v” and “u” were still two peas in a pod at the time, each one useful
for making /v/ and /u/ sounds, meaning you could write this new letter as a double-v
or a double-u. But here’s where we should jump off the hamster wheel of history, because
eventually that German /w/ starts to turn into /v/ on its own, just like the Latin V
before it. Oh, history, you really like to keep your fingers on that replay button, don’t
you? I’d love to go on and compare other alphabets
and talk about how or even if each individual European language adopted these changes or
didn’t or made decisions of its own. Think about how to this day the Irish alphabet makes
none of these distinctions except c and g. But this is a good place to wrap up. Between
last time, with the uppercase/lowercase stuff and these modded letters, I think you can
see that while you might think your alphabet’s been aging and evolving since time immemorial,
in some very real ways, it’s not as old as you think.

Comments 100

  • As well as iuvenis, iusticia is a good example of the i/j problem

  • Svch a creat video

  • Oopsalon? I thought it was upsilon

  • y y y not y

  • Cenivs

  • Do how did the letters end up in the order we use for sorting?


  • V is called UVE in roman Languages, because it is U and V 🙂
    I think that the Problem with IVC was, that in older Latin there was more or less an Logic, when its U and when it is V, like in spanish or italian.
    C is "soft" when it follows an E or I, like in Cielo/Celo (heaven), but "hard" like in Caca (yeah, i thought it was an good Example^^)
    When latin evolved an more Words come across, also greek Words, the Logic was toooo broken.

    Thats why new Languages evolved their own "Modifications" of the Alphabet, like ñ or ç, because they need them.

  • 4:58 I thought a random person was actually playing some strings instrument outside

  • ° – °
    Likes own comment because no one else will

  • haelou hovv’s vor dav

  • JUVENIS became Juvenile in English. Juventud en Español.

  • Hi, I have a question about the letter G, so… You are saying that Magnus mas MACNUS, and Magister was MACISTER, Ego was ECO anD Cogito ergo sum was COCITO ERCO SUM? I mean… Wow… That is a full on bdg ptk going on.

  • On the italian passport the U‘s are still wirtten as V‘s. So there is written “Repvbblica Italiana“ and “Comvne di“

  • There exists an Nordic alphabet, called FUÞARK.

  • "G was the first to emerge…". So I guess, he was the original gangster, OG!

  • Logos using this kind of Latin:
    Belisarius Productions


  • Who just saw a long s?

  • I believe you didn't bring up Q

  • Creat video. I vvill start tipinc lice þis becavse it lvcs fvvcinc cvl

  • Very annoying degenerate voice.

  • C having multiple sounds is useless in my view. It can be s, k and soft throat sound with h together (ch) in various languages. That letter be gone and just keep s and k. And g for throat rasping sounds, not the k-like sound.
    Also the q is the same as k, so the q can be removed.

  • And the german fucked up sometimes making the V into F and W into V.

  • capital ß is coming! 🙂


  • confusing video man

  • In old German the making up of the "w" was more, in english it was a sticking of two "v" but in german it was a sticking of three "u". We can see that in some words: Frouwan (woman) [FROUUUAN], wuohsan (grow) [UUUOHSAN]. Only some words had "w" sticked of two "u": hwat (what) [HUUAT], swein (pig/swine) [SUUEIN].

  • Wait that’s why w is “double u” in English but “doble v” in Spanish 🤯

  • you can resist his cute little characters

  • What about K?

  • I cannot dovvnload and install the nevv alphabet, seriovsly, cant dovvnload it. Fvck… Even svverinc does't vvorks too vvel.

  • Don't you mean the C/G gontroversy was gonfusinc and dancerous to the angient Romans?

  • Oh, and does the pronunciation of "W" periodically reversing explain why non-English Germanic speakers pronounce "W"s like "V"s?

  • I downloaded the letter mod. It was cool. I like extra letters

  • Vat do v mean vith moded alphabet? Ve shovld not ioin these crvel svmbols in ovr svstem

  • So basically the Romans didn't say thick, they said thicc. That means that thicc is correct and modern internet lingo is tapping into ancient Latin.

    /s just in case somebody takes this seriously.

  • Cuys look Ivvenis Ivventis
    Juvenis juventus

  • Greek g is γγ or γκ

  • We are latins. We have in the alphabet the letter C, originating from the Greek Gamma and denoting the sounds /k/ and /g/, and the letter K, originating from the Greek Cappa and denoting the sound /k/. Why don't we make a one-to-one correspondence between C for /g/ and K for / k /? No-o-o, it's too easy. We will invent a new letter by adding a stroke to C, because it is so rational and logical.

  • 2:04 in every european language U is pronounced that way. but english doesn’t do it

  • Γ ➡️ C

  • And then theres the tale of the Younger Futhark…. latin alphabet aint got shit on this one for being "overburdened"!

    ᚠ = f, v
    ᚢ = u, v/w, y, o, ø
    ᚦ = þ, d
    ᚬ = a, o, æ
    ᚱ = r
    ᚴ = k, g (also kinda c)

    thats just the first 6 im not gonna write the rest

  • A phobia of germs

  • Cood

  • There were once only 21 letters? Now that's just plain nuts! N-V-T-S nuts!

  • probaverunt ego video
    Go to google translate

  • Actually you kinda dont need that ju
    Because iu already sounded kinda same to ju

  • check out my most recent video for the top ten dumbest looking letters 🙂

  • why do I need to know this?

  • I wondered if Jehovah's Witnesses ever said "Yehovah" because Iehovah

    Also IVVENIS -> JUVENIS => juvenile

  • It’s very interesting. I used to find it strange that in Arabic, the consonant “w” and vowel “oo” are written the same. And the consonant “y” and vowel “ee” sounds are also written the same. Now I know that Latin did the same. Thanks to you.

  • could new letters comeup in the furtre or do you thing computers has set our alphabet in stone

  • Vanilla Alphabet is so lame. You should get the G and J mods, they make the whole thing run so much smoother!

  • 2:08 that symbol looks like y so I guess that's why y is pronounced upsilon in German

  • Also, Y and J both evolved several times. A Germanic long ee-sound, written ii would in joined-up handwriting be written as ij to make sure it wasn't confused with u or ü, which turned into ÿ and then y in some languages. For added fun, Dutch kept this evolution of ij as a digraph instead of moving onto y.

  • The letter "V" was already pronounced with its modern sound in Spain two thousand years ago, hence the Latin sentence: "Beati hispani, quibus vivere bibere est."

  • Oopselon looks like an iud

  • Can you make a video on ancient Cyrillic

  • 2:17 In Spanish the majority of letters Y were replace by letters I

  • In Spanish V sounds like B

  • I wonder when english writing will correct itself to match the sounds

  • French W is literally double V and y is Greek I


  • Do the Irish alphabet please. The people in charge of making up new Irish words don’t seem to realise that English letters don’t belong in Irish words

  • In icelandic we call W double V (Tvöfalt vaff) and y as ypsilon/ufsilon i

  • C sounding like c and g, makes me think of gato and cat. Much more similar when you realized the letter was interchangeable. Maybe? Idk

  • Wow, I love this video. Is so interesting and exciting because it gives to me some light in how Latin became different languages. Why? you may ask. Well, because there was no a standard way of writing and pronouncing give us(the Romance languages) confusion. In Hispania the creator of the “g.” Is name RUGA while in Italy must be RUCA. After all Hispania has “amiGo” no “amiCo”. Cracias por explicar alco tan interesante.

  • Anyone going to talk about the fact that their characters have heads that look like they've been inflated as a balloon?

  • 2:32 Boys, as native Italian speaker … that page of medieval Italian is damn clear for me!

  • I think it would be interesting to make a video about gothic alphabet and how did it changed to latin nowadays because for example, latvians had gothic alphabet till soviet occupation and there was some interesting ways to write some special latvian sounds. I'm interesed in the way, hoe this alphabet changed through history.

  • The manuscript at 2:23 is from "Ɛpistola del Trissino de le lettere nuωvamente aggiunte ne la lingua Italiana" ("Epistle by Trissino about the new letters added to the Italian language"), a 1529 text written by Gian Giorgio Trissino, an Italian humanist and grammarian that proposed some changes in ortography, some of which have actually been made (at his time or much later). In this work (the main one on this matter) he's proposing the introduction of five new letters to the Italian writing system. These letters are:
    1) Ɛε to indicate /ε/, since /e/ and /ε/ are both indicated by Ee;
    2) Ⲱω to indicate /ɔ/, since /o/ and /ɔ/ are both indicated by Oo;
    3) Vv to indicate /v/ and Uu to indicate /u/, since /u/ and /v/ were both indicated by Vu back then in all of Europe;
    4) Jj to indicate /j/, since /i/ and /j/ are both indicated by Ii;
    5) Ӡç to indicate /dz/, since /ts/ and /dz/ are both indicated by Zz.
    As you might probably already tell, the letters Ɛ and Ⲱ didn't make into modern Italian, despite the differences between e/ε and o/ɔ still existing. E's and O's ambiguities are sometimes inconvenient, but people usually just deal with it so in the end it's probably not worth it to convince tens of millions of people to change orthography just for a slight improvement.
    It's not clear who, where and when made distinction between V and U for the first time, but Trissino was the very first to introduce it in Italian. This separation (internationally) became respectively common and definitive only ~150 and ~250 years after Trissino's adoption.
    Even though J and I had already been used as variants of the same letter for a long time, this same Trissino's work was the first time someone used the two forms as separate letters with distinct values and functions. This distinction was maybe less important than the V/U one, but it was still useful and appreciated: the Italian language did in fact adopt it for a long time, but then the letter J fell out of use in ~1900. Today, the letter I stands for both /i/ and /j/ again, while J is only used in loanwords as (rare) /j/ or (more often) /dʒ/, depending on the loanword's original language.
    Finally, always at the end, the letter Z. This letter in Italian indicates two sounds that, even if theoretically similar (different voicing of the same consonant), are perceived very differently (they're even called "sweet" one and "sour" the other). Even if a semantic relevance is extremely rare, their difference is very important and the letter Z must never be mispronounced! If you say /dz/ instead of /ts/ you'll sound like a total freak and if you say /ts/ instead of /dz/ you'll somehow sound vulgar and rude. And guess what? To know which one is correct you just have to know it (or by etymology, if you know Latin and Greek).

    Gian Giorgio Trissino has probably been one of the most influential figures not only for Italian orthography, but European more in general. It's a shame he's absolutely unknown even in Italy.

  • The text at 2:23 is in Italian and it was written in 1529 by Giovan Giorgio Trissino. It's a letter ("Ɛpistola del Trissino de le lettere nuωvamente aggiunte ne la lingua Italiana" = "Epistle by Trissino about the new letters added to the Italian language") to Pope Clement VII Medici in which he proposes the introduction of new letters in the Italian alphabet: in the page here shown, he's talking about "Ɛ" for /ε/ (since E indicates both /e/ and /ε/) and "Ⲱ" for /ɔ/ (since O indicates both /o/ and /ɔ/).

    Here is the transcription:
    « … la natura loro manıfeſta; accıὼ che ad un tεmpo, εt a color, che le vorranno uſare, ſıano nωte, εt a quellı, che le vorranno rıprεndere, εxpωſte. Ɛt apprεſſo mı ὲ parſo ſotto ıl nome dı Vωſtra Beatıtudıne publıcarle; sì, perchè la prıma vωlta, che queſte lettere ſı ſono uſate, ſono ſtate pωſte ne la Canzone, che a quella donaı; sì εtıando, perchè εſſεndo quaſı unıverſale opınıone, che ſotto ıl Pontıfıcato dı Vωſtra Santıtà, non ſolamente la chıeſıa Romana, ma tutta la republıca Chrıſtıana dεbbıa rıcevere lume, ordıne, εt augumento; così parımente convenevole cωſa mı pare, che ſotto ıl felıce nome dı quella la pronuntıa ıtalıana ſıa ın qualche parte ıllumınata, εt ajutata. Le lettere adunque, che ıo prımamente aggıunſı a l'alphabεto, furono ε apεrto, εt ω apεrto; Ɛ queſto fecı, percıὼ che εſſεndo ın e, εt o lettere vocalı due pronuntıe, l'una pıu pıccola, ε pıu chıuſa, ω vero pıu corta, ε pıu obtuſetta, chε l'altra, com'ὲ a dır veglıo, ε vεglıo, mele, ε mεle, toſco, ε tωſco, torre, ε tωrre, ε ſımılı, mı parve neceſſarıa cωſa con qualche nωta moſtrarlo; percıὼ che veglıo quando vuωl dır vıgılo, ε mele quando … »

    Here it is again, in a more recent Italian:
    « … il loro uso spiegato, affinché a coloro che un giorno le vorranno usare siano note e, a coloro che le vorranno riprendere, esposte. Ho poi ritenuto pubblicarle sotto la benedizione del nome di Vostra Santità, giacché la prima volta che queste lettere sono state usate lo sono state nell'opera di cui Vi feci dono e, inoltre, anche perché è opinione assai diffusa che sotto il Vostro Pontificato non solo la Chiesa Romana, ma tutt'Europa debba ricevere lume, ordine e progresso; altrettanto opportuno mi pare che sotto la Vostra benedizione la lingua italiana venga almeno in parte corretta dalla ragione. Dunque, le lettere che ho aggiunto all'alfabeto sono la Ɛ per È aperta e Ⲱ per Ò aperta: ho fatto ciò poiché vi sono nelle vocali E ed O due pronunce, una più chiusa dell'altra, come in véglio e vèglio, méle e mèle, tósco e tòsco, tórre e tòrre e simili, così mi parve necessario mostrarlo in qualche modo. Perciò véglio quando s'intende vigilo e méle quando … »

    Finally, translation in English:
    « … their use explained, so that to those who one day will want to use them they'll be known and, to those who will want to adopt them, clearly explained. I've then considered publishing them under the blessing of Your Holiness, since the first time these letters have been used it was in the work I homaged You with and, moreover, because it's a well shared opinion that under Your Pontificate not only the Roman Church, but all of Europe should receive brightness, order and progress; also, I believe appropriate that under Your blessing the Italian language gets at least partially improved by reason. So, the letters I added to the alphabet are Ɛ for /ε/ and Ⲱ for /ɔ/: I've done so because there are, in the vowels E and O, two sounds each, one more close than the other, like in [here he lists couples of Italian words with different pronounciation of the same written letter, we might say as if: ] moon and book, height and reign, cool and foot, matter and father and similar cases, so it appeares necessary to me to show it in some way. Therefore, mūn when we mean the satellite and fɑther when … »

    In the English translation, sorry for obvious inaccuracies ahah
    It's really a shame Trissino isn't famous at all (not even in Italy), despite having been so influential in modern Western orthographies: the manuscript shown in this video, for example, is the first time J has actually been used as a real letter, instead of a variant of I.

  • Make a video about how each European language adopted and changed the Latin alphabet

  • Talk about the Greek alphabet!

  • "Upsilon"

  • i think the true roman alfhabet was ABCDEFGHIJLMNOPQRSTUVXZ

  • K also wasn't a latin letter

  • If C stood for "k" and "g" sounds, what the letter K stood for? Were there two letters for the sound "k"? Why was that?

  • Double-U is W Which is Double-V

  • Create a new video of Q P A Z!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    Please & start texting

  • and UU is kicked out of the alphabet. and JUVENIS W I say W

  • great video

  • This damn "humor" bullshit. I just want to see something explained well and acquire knowledge. I don't want it to be "funny". Gravitas is a virtue people. Levitas is not.

  • USED : Γ [Greek]
    Double U – VV

  • It's why I handwrite "w" looking like two conjoined "u"-s

  • i think k was also not part of original latin alphabet

  • j is the most flexible letter representing so many sounds, some examples (sorry i'll use cyrillic (bulgarian) i am not a linguist.
    english: j -> дж
    french: j -> ж
    spanish (portugese?): j -> х
    slavic languages using latin alphabet: j -> й
    i am sure there are much more, i am not aware of

  • 3:49 Old Cicero was pronounced Kikero. The Romans had no soft C

  • whoever made b, d, p, q just got lazy

  • Ever ord in this sentence are not sin these letters

  • Ruca’s school was Lowell House at Harvard?

  • Do Cyrillic next

  • So basically Germans invented "w", yet how most people decipher a German accent by listening if they don't use a "w". Fun.

  • Vav!! (Wow!)

  • Bro, there is no such thing as Latin alphabet. It is the Roman alphabet used to write Latin language, just like the Cyrillic alphabet was used to write the Russian language.

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