I’m a little befuddled. I get notifications from Dictionary.com’s “the hot word” blog regularly, and I usually enjoy reading some of the insights there. This past week, however, the blog seems to be a bit inaccurate, and I’m a bit confused. They wrote an entry about why the letters “P” and “R” don’t originally come from the same letter, as you might expect because they’re visually so similar. The author briefly explains the origins of each letter and how the two letters came into the alphabet. It’s a short read, so check it out:

Do P and R come from the same letter?

On the one hand, it’s definitely interesting that these two letters don’t bear a common ancestry, and it’s fun to see how/why they’re different. On the other hand, the way they explain the orthography behind the letter “R” doesn’t seem correct to me. I think they have the basic facts correct, but I’m pretty sure there’s more to the story, and I think they’re probably just wrong on at least one point. Here’s how the article explains it:

The letter R came from the Phoenician letter rosh (see image at left). The word rosh meant head and the letter resembles a neck and head. It also looks like a backwards P. When the letter entered the Greek alphabet, the Greeks turned the letter around and added the short leg to the side. They called this letter rho.

Hold on now… have you seen the Greek letter rho? There’s no leg to the side. It’s just the mirror image of the Phoenician letter rosh. The article makes a passing reference to the Romans, and I have heard that the Romans added the leg, turning it into the modern letter “R” that we use today. The article claims they used the Etruscan letter for P and created the letter R out of it, though, which seems a little odd to me. The Etruscan alphabet is derived directly from the Greek alphabet, and the letter for P looks more like a backward lowercase r. It certainly isn’t something you can simply add a leg to and create our modern R. You could, however, take the Etruscan letter R, flip it around, and add the leg, but… that’s not exactly how it happened. In fact, the Etruscans began adding a little mini-leg to their letter to differentiate it from a later form of the letter P they were using, and eventually it got flipped around and started to look like the letter we use today. Minor details, I know, but I like to get the story right.

I realize I’m rambling a little, but I’ll get to my point. Of course it’s probable that the Romans wanted a letter to represent the R sound that was visually distinct from the letter P. What’s fascinating to me is that — apparently by coincidence — they managed to create the runic letter raidō for use in their Latin alphabet without any interaction with the Germanic tribes to the north who had already created this rune that both expressed the “R” sound and looked exactly like our modern letter R. Crazy, isn’t it?

Take a look at the runic letter raidō pictured to the right. It represents the R sound in all of the Germanic runic alphabets in use throughout the first millennium and beyond, and it was often written with the lines connected in the middle, exactly how we write the letter R today. It has the same sound as our modern R, and it was a common letter that didn’t change with the modifications to the runic alphabets during the expansions of the North Germanic, East Germanic, and West Germanic dialect groups. Each incorporated some changes to their runic alphabets as their languages changed, but the letter R remained the same for all of them.

Is it just a coincidence that the letter R created by the Romans and the runic letter raidō created by the Germanic peoples ended up being exactly the same? It’s difficult to say with any certainty whether there was a borrowing of ideas back and forth between these groups. Their alphabets do stem from a common source in antiquity, so maybe these modifications over time toward the same end result aren’t so unlikely. Either way, Dictionary.com’s blog entry got me thinking, and this is where my thought process ended up. It’s fascinating stuff to consider!

Please comment and discuss: