What the Romans did not do for us

By Ingrid Friedel

What did the Romans ever do for us? Anyone who has seen “Life of Bryan” will remember this scene. John Cleese, here a member of the Judean opposition to the Roman occupation, asks this defiant question. But after a little discussion the list of blessings introduced by the Romans gets longer and longer: sanitation, medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, fresh water system, public health… Quite impressive indeed. One thing, however, they really did not do for us: they did not leave us nearly enough letters to cope with the many sounds existing or developing in other European languages.

We have to be grateful of course to be given an alphabet at all and not a pictorial or syllabic script. It was a major breakthrough in recording language to split the words up into their sound components and combine these to form any word you wanted. Absolutely brilliant idea. With a minimum of tools we were now equipped to render the spoken language into a phonetically correct written form. Or were we?

We might have been, if linguistically-minded people had tried to analyse the sounds, classify them phonetically and had given each sound its own letter. It is stunning how phonetically systematic the alphabet of Sanskrit is arranged.

The Sanskrit alphabet

In contrast, we in Europe were presented with the 23 characters of the Roman alphabet, assorted in a completely haphazard way. The vowels are mixed with the consonants and there is no grouping of related sounds.

The archaic Latin alphabet

That was the first drawback. The second problem resulted from the fact that Latin was a language that just didn’t have that many sounds. The Romans would have been happy with even one vowel less in their alphabet. They really only needed a, e, i, o, u — the “y” was already a concession to an imported sound necessary for Greek names or loan words. It is still called “y-grecque” in French and was a sound more like the German “ü”.

Now, vowels can be short or long. In the Greek alphabet you do have different letters e.g. for the short /o/ (o micron) and the long one (o mega). The length of the vowel was important in Latin as well. However, this wasn’t indicated by a different character but by the vowel’s position in the word. Now why would you apply two methods if one perfectly good one will do?

The Greek alphabet also had quite a few individual characters for double consonants (at least originally they were), like /ks/, /ps/, /ts/. This is phonetically unnecessary, but still two of these ended up in the Roman alphabet as well: the “X” and the “Z”. They can easily be broken down into their components, for example “taksi, seks” (both Turkish) and tsar (English, as compared to the same word in German: “Zar”), but the characters remained and became jokers in other languages for sounds that needed to be represented there.

Sign on a watch shop in Turkey

All in all, there simply weren’t enough letters in the Roman alphabet to cover even the basic different sounds existing in the other languages of Europe to create a phonetic spelling. So when with the spread of Christianity the first attempts were made to render the local languages in the various parts of Europe with Latin characters the scribes struggled with the missing sounds. Some adaptations had to be made. Sometimes combinations of letters were used to express certain sounds, like the ae in Danish or Icelandic. Sometimes new characters were introduced, like the ones for the voiced and voiceless “th” in English, which are still part of the Icelandic alphabet (called “edh” and “thorn”, which existed in Old English as well, but was dropped later.) Diacritics often helped as well.

In other instances, however, everybody came up with their own solution. Let’s just look at one particular sound that many European languages have but Latin didn’t, the “sh”.

Well, that is already the combined-letter solution English came up with. In French it is “ch”, like in “champagne”. In German it is three letters: “sch”. Cross the border to Poland and you have to pronounce the “sz” as “sh”, (Polish has more varieties of the sound, indicated by diacritics or letter combinations). In Hungary then the simple “s” represents the “sh”, as in Budapest = Budapesht.

But what about the direct descendants of Latin? How did they fare? Did no sh-sound appear? Well, it surely did, but in a hidden way. It was the harmless “c” that started misbehaving. In classical Latin it was always pronounced /k/, but in Vulgar Latin it already changed into /ts/, and in Church Latin this went further. Most people who have prayed or sung a mass have pronounced “benedicimus te” as “beneditshimus te”. Nobody sings “benedikimus te”.

In present-day Italian the “sh” appears also in its own right, as a single sound between two vowels. There also is this difference: if the vowel after the “sh” is an “e” or “i”, it is spelled “sc”, as in “uscita” (“ushita”, exit). If, however, the second vowel is an a, o, or u, it is spelled “sci”, as in the first word of Dante’s warning over the entrance to hell: “Lasciate ogni speranza, voi qu’entrate.” Confusing? Yes, all this because there was no character available for the “sh”!

Did the Russians fare better with their version of the alphabet? Is their spelling more phonetic? And what about Greek? We shall see!



Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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The Friedel Chronicles

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.