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The Latin alphabet, also called the Roman alphabet, is the most widely used alphabetic writing system in the world today. It evolved from the western variety of the Greek alphabet called the Cumaean alphabet, which was borrowed and modified by the Etruscans who ruled early Rome, which alphabet was then adapted and further modified by the ancient Roman to write the Latin language.

During the Middle Ages, it was adapted to the Romance languages, the direct descendants of Latin, as well as to the Celtic, Germanic, Baltic, and some Slavic languages, and finally to most of the languages of Europe.

With the age of colonialism and Christian proselytism, the Latin alphabet was spread overseas, and applied to Indigenous American, Indigenous Australian, Austronesian, East Asian, and African languages. More recently, western linguists have also tended to prefer the Latin alphabet or the International Phonetic Alphabet (itself largely based on the Latin alphabet) when transcribing or creating written standards for non-European languages, such as the African reference alphabet.

In modern usage, the term Latin alphabet is used for any direct derivation of the alphabet first used to write Latin. These variants may discard letters from the classical Roman script (like the Rotokas alphabet) or add new characters to it, as from the Danish and Norwegian alphabet. Letter shapes have changed over the centuries, including the creation of entirely new lower case characters.



It is generally believed that the Romans adopted the Cumae alphabet‎, a variant of the Greek alphabet, in the 7th century B.C. from Cumaemarker, a Greek colony in Southern Italy. (Gaius Julius Hyginus in Fab. 277 mentions the legend that it was Carmenta, the Cimmerian Sibyl. who altered fifteen letters of the Greek alphabet to become the Latin alphabet, which her son Evander introduced into Latium, supposedly 60 years before the Trojan War, but there is no historically sound basis to this tale.) The Ancient Greek alphabet was in turn based upon the Phoenician alphabet. From the Cumae alphabet, the Etruscan alphabet was derived and the Romans eventually adopted 21 of the original 26 Etruscan letters:

Archaic Latin alphabet

The letter C was the western form of the Greek gamma, but it was used for the sounds and alike, possibly under the influence of Etruscan, which lacked any voiced plosive. Later, probably during the 3rd century BC, the letter Z — unneeded to write Latin proper — was replaced with the new letter G, a C modified with a small horizontal stroke, which took its place in the alphabet. From then on, G represented the voiced plosive , while C was generally reserved for the voiceless plosive . The letter K was used only rarely, in a small number of words such as Kalendae, often interchangeably with C.

After the Roman conquest of Greecemarker in the first century BC, Latin adopted the Greek letters Y and Z (or rather readopted, in the latter case) to write Greek loanwords, placing them at the end of the alphabet. An attempt by the emperor Claudius to introduce three additional letters did not last. Thus it was that during the classical Latin period the Latin alphabet contained 23 letters:

Classical Latin alphabet
Letter A B C D E F G H
Name ā ē ef
Pronunciation () /aː/ /beː/ /keː/ /deː/ /eː/ /ef/ /geː/ /haː/
Letter I K L M N O P Q
Name ī el em en ō
Pronunciation () /iː/ /kaː/ /el/ /em/ /en/ /oː/ /peː/ /kʷuː/
Letter R S T V X Y Z  
Name er es ū ex ī Graeca zēta
Pronunciation () /er/ /es/ /teː/ /uː/ /eks/ /iː ˈgraika/ /ˈzeːta/

The Latin names of some of these letters are disputed. In general, however, the Romans did not use the traditional (Semitic-derived) names as in Greek: the names of the plosives were formed by adding to their sound (except for K and Q, which needed different vowels to be distinguished from C) and the names of the continuants consisted either of the bare sound, or the sound preceded by . The letter Y when introduced was probably called hy as in Greek, the name upsilon not being in use yet, but this was changed to i Graeca (Greek letter 'i') as Latin speakers had difficulty distinguishing its foreign sound from . Z was given its Greek name, zeta. For the Latin sounds represented by the various letters see Latin spelling and pronunciation; for the names of the letters in English see English alphabet. The modern language that has been most conservative in preserving the ancient Roman names of the letters is the German.

Old Roman cursive script, also called majuscule cursive and capitalis cursive, was the everyday form of handwriting used for writing letters, by merchants writing business accounts, by schoolchildren learning the Latin alphabet, and even emperors issuing commands. A more formal style of writing was based on Roman square capitals, but cursive was used for quicker, informal writing. It was most commonly used from about the 1st century BC to the 3rd century, but it probably existed earlier than that. It led to Uncial, a majuscule script commonly used from the 3rd to 8th centuries AD by Latin and Greek scribes.

New Roman cursive script, also known as minuscule cursive, was in use from the 3rd century to the 7th century, and uses letter forms that are more recognizable to modern eyes; a, b, d, and e had taken a more familiar shape, and the other letters were proportionate to each other. This script evolved into the medieval scripts known as Merovingian and Carolingian minuscule.

Medieval and later developments

It was not until the Middle Ages that the letter W (originally a ligature of V and V) was added to the Latin alphabet, to represent sounds from the Germanic languages which did not exist in medieval Latin, and only after the Renaissance did the convention of treating I and U as vowels, andJ and V as consonants, become established. Prior to that, the former had been merely glyph variants of the latter.

With the fragmentation of political power, the style of writing changed and varied greatly throughout the Middle Ages, and even after the invention of the printing press. Early deviations from the classical forms were the uncial script, a development of the Old Roman cursive, and various so-called minuscule scripts that developed from New Roman cursive, of which the Carolingian minuscule was the most influential, introducing the lower case forms of the letters, as well as other writing conventions that have since become standard.

The languages that use the Latin alphabet today generally use capital letters to begin paragraphs and sentences and proper nouns. The rules for capitalization have changed over time, and different languages have varied in their rules for capitalization. Old English, for example, was rarely written with even proper nouns capitalized; whereas Modern English of the 18th century had frequently all nouns capitalized, in the same way that Modern German is written today, e.g. "Alle Schwestern der alten Stadt hatten die Vögel gesehen".

Spread of the Latin alphabet

The Latin alphabet spread, along with the Latin language, from the Italian Peninsula to the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Seamarker with the expansion of the Roman Empire. The eastern half of the Empire, including Greecemarker, Asia Minormarker, the Levant, and Egyptmarker, continued to use Greek as a lingua franca, but Latin was widely spoken in the western half, and as the western Romance languages evolved out of Latin, they continued to use and adapt the Latin alphabet.

With the spread of Western Christianity during the Middle Ages, the alphabet was gradually adopted by the peoples of northern Europe who spoke Celtic languages (displacing the Ogham alphabet) or Germanic languages (displacing earlier Runic alphabets), Baltic languages, as well as by the speakers of several Finno-Ugric languages, most notably Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian. The alphabet also came into use for writing the West Slavic languages and several South Slavic languages, as the people who spoke them adopted Roman Catholicism. The speakers of East Slavic languages generally adopted the Cyrillic alphabet along with Orthodox Christianity, despite that Latin alphabet has been actively used in Belarusmarker in late Middle Ages and that there has always been a significant Roman Catholic minority in the country. The Serbian language uses both alphabets, with Latin being the predominant alphabet in the province of Vojvodina.

As late as 1492, the Latin alphabet was limited primarily to the languages spoken in Western, Northern, and Central Europe. The Orthodox Christian Slavs of Eastern and Southeastern Europe mostly used the Cyrillic alphabet, and the Greek alphabet was in use by Greek-speakers around the eastern Mediterranean. The Arabic alphabet was widespread within Islam, both among Arabs and non-Arab nations like the Iranians, Indonesians, Malay, and Turkic peoples. Most of the rest of Asia used a variety of Brahmic alphabets or the Chinese script.

Latin alphabet world distribution.
The dark green areas shows the countries where this alphabet is the sole main script.
The light green shows the countries where the alphabet co-exists with other scripts.
Please note that the Latin alphabet is sometimes extensively used even in areas coloured grey due to use of unofficial second languages (e.g.
French in Algeria or English in Egypt) and Latin transliterations of the official language (practised to some degree in most countries with a non-Latin alphabet).

Over the past 500 years, the Latin alphabet has spread around the world, to the Americas, Oceania, and parts of Asia, Africa, and the Pacific with European colonization, along with the Spanish, Portuguese, English, French, Swedish and Dutch languages. The Latin alphabet is also used for many Austronesian languages, including Tagalog and the other languages of the Philippines, and the official Malaysian and Indonesian languages, replacing earlier Arabic and indigenous Brahmic alphabets. Some glyph forms from the Latin alphabet served as the basis for the forms of the symbols in the Cherokee syllabary developed by Sequoyah; however, the sounds of the final syllabary were completely different. L. L. Zamenhof used the Latin alphabet as the basis for the alphabet of Esperanto. And the Latin alphabet was chosen for the Ido language due to its unquestionable international predominance of a global alphabet in most of the world's population.

In the late nineteenth century, the Romaniansmarker adopted the Latin alphabet, primarily because Romanian is a Romance language. The Romanians were predominantly Orthodox Christians, and their Church had promoted the Cyrillic alphabet prior to that.

Under French rule and Portuguese missionary influence, the Latin alphabet was adapted for writing the Vietnamese language, which had previously used Chinese-like characters.

In 1928, as part of Kemal Atatürk's reforms, Turkeymarker adopted the Latin alphabet for the Turkish language, replacing the Arabic alphabet. Most of Turkic-speaking peoples of the former USSRmarker, including Tartars, Bashkirs, Azeri, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and others, used the Latin-based Uniform Turkic alphabet in the 1930s, but in the 1940s all those alphabets were replaced by Cyrillic. After the collapse of the Soviet Unionmarker in 1991, several of the newly-independent Turkic-speaking republics, namely Azerbaijanmarker, Uzbekistanmarker, and Turkmenistanmarker, as well as Romanian-speaking Moldovamarker, have officially adopted the Latin alphabet for Azeri, Uzbek, Turkmen, Kazakh, Tatar, and Romanian respectively. Kyrgyzstanmarker, Tajikistanmarker, and the breakaway region of Transnistriamarker kept the Cyrillic alphabet, chiefly due to their close ties with Russia. In the same periods during the 1930s and 1940s, the majority of Kurds throughout the Kurdistanmarker region replaced their use of the Arabic alphabet for writing in the Kurdish language by adopting two forms of the Latin alphabet.

Although today the only official Kurdish government located in Iraqmarker uses the Arabic alphabet for public documents, the Latin alphabet remains widely used throughout the region by the majority of Kurdish-speakers.


In the course of its use, the Latin alphabet was adapted for use in new languages, sometimes representing phonemes not found in languages that were already written with the Roman characters. To represent these new sounds, extensions were therefore created, be it by adding diacritics to existing letters, by joining multiple letters together to make ligatures, by creating completely new forms, or by assigning a special function to pairs or triplets of letters. These new forms are given a place in the alphabet by defining an alphabetical order or collation sequence, which can vary with the particular language.


A ligature is a fusion of two or more ordinary letters into a new glyph or character. Examples are Æ/æ (from AE, called "ash"), Œ/œ (from OE, sometimes called "oethel"), the abbreviation & (from Latin et "and"), and the German symbol ß ("sharp S" or eszet, from ſz or ſs, the archaic medial form of s, followed by a z or s).

Wholly new letters

Examples are the Runic letters wynn ( ) and thorn (Þ/þ), and the Irish letter eth (Ð/ð), which were added to the alphabet of Old English. Another Irish letter, the insular g, developed into yogh (Ȝ/ȝ), used in Middle English. Wynn was later replaced with the new letter w, eth and thorn with th, and yogh with gh. Although the four are no longer part of the English or Irish alphabets, eth and thorn are still used in the modern Icelandic alphabet.

The Azerbaijani alphabet has adopted the letter schwa from the , using it to represent the sound . Some West, Central and Southern African languages use a few additional letters which have a similar sound value to their equivalents in the IPA. For example, Adangme uses the letters and , and Ga uses , Ŋ/ŋ and . Hausa uses and for implosives, and for an ejective. Africanists have standardized these into the African reference alphabet.

Digraphs and trigraphs

Main articles: Digraph and Trigraph
A digraph is a pair of letters used to write one sound or a combination of sounds that does not correspond to the written letters in sequence. Examples are ch, rh, sh in English, or the Dutch ij (note that ij is capitalized as IJ or the ligature IJ and sometimes as the single letter Y despite it is a different letter, but never as Ij, and that it often takes the appearance of a ligature ij very similar to the letter ÿ in handwriting). A trigraph is made up of three letters, like the German sch, the Breton c’h or the Milanese oeu. In the orthographies of some languages, digraphs and trigraphs are regarded as independent letters of the alphabet in their own right. The capitalization of digraphs and trigraphs is language-dependent, as only on the first letter may be capitalized, or all component letters simultaneously even for words written in titlecase only where the other non-initial letters after the digraph or trigraph are left in lowercase.


A diacritic, in some cases also called an accent, is a small symbol which can appear above or below a letter, or in some other position, such as the umlaut sign used in the German characters Ä, Ö, Ü. Its main function is to change the phonetic value of the letter to which it is added, but it may also modify the pronunciation of a whole syllable or word, or distinguish between homograph. As with letters, the value of diacritics is language-dependent.


Modified letters such as the symbols Å, Ä, and Ö may be regarded as new individual letters in themselves, and assigned a specific place in the alphabet for collation purposes, separate from that of the letter on which they are based, as is done in Swedish. In other cases, such as with Ä, Ö, Ü in German, this is not done, letter-diacritic combinations being identified with their base letter. The same applies to digraphs and trigraphs. Different diacritics may be treated differently in collation within a single language. For example, in Spanish the character Ñ is considered a letter in its own, and sorted between N and O in dictionaries, but the accented vowels Á, É, Í, Ó, Ú are not separated from the unaccented vowels A, E, I, O, U.


Words from languages natively written with other scripts, such as Arabic or Chinese, are usually transliterated or transcribed when embedded in Latin text or in multilingual international communication, a process termed Romanization.

Whilst the Romanization of such languages is used mostly at unofficial levels, it has been especially prominent in computer messaging where only the limited 7-bit ASCII code is available on older systems. However, with the introduction of Unicode, Romanization is now becoming less necessary. Note that keyboards used to enter such text may still restrict users to Romanized text, as only ASCII or Latin-alphabet characters may be available.

The English alphabet

As used in modern English, the Latin alphabet consists of the following characters

Majuscule Forms (also called uppercase or capital letters)
Minuscule Forms (also called lowercase or small letters)
a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

In addition, the ligatures Æ of A with E (e.g. "encyclopædia"), and Œ of O with E (e.g. "cœlacanth") may be used, optionally, in words derived from Latin or Greek, and the diaeresis mark is sometimes placed for example on the letters o and e (e.g. "coöperate" or "preëxisting") to indicate the pronunciation of oo or ee as two distinct vowels, rather than a long one. Hyphenation may also be used, to avoid having to type accented characters: "co-operate" or "pre-existing". Outside of professional papers on specific subjects that traditionally use ligatures in loanwords, however, ligatures and diaereses are seldom used in modern English. Note, however, that some fonts for typesetting English contain commonly used ligatures, such as for tt, fi, fl, ffi, and ffl. These are not part of the language, per se, but rather typographic convention.

Latin alphabet and international standards

By the 1960s it became apparent to the computer and telecommunications industries in the First World that a non-proprietary method of encoding characters was needed. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) encapsulated the Latin alphabet in their (ISO/IEC 646) standard. To achieve widespread acceptance, this encapsulation was based on popular usage. As the United States held a preeminent position in both industries during the 1960s the standard was based on the already published American Standard Code for Information Interchange, better known as ASCII, which included in the character set the 26 x 2 letters of the English alphabet. Later standards issued by the ISO, for example ISO/IEC 10646 (Unicode Latin), have continued to define the 26 x 2 letters of the English alphabet as the basic Latin alphabet with extensions to handle other letters in other languages.

See also

Further reading

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