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We have a solid understanding of what the Romans called the letters of the alphabet, and the names of the Greek letters (alpha, beta, gamma…) are well-known.

However, there seems to be a step missing here. The Greek names are clearly adaptations of the Phoenician ('ālep, bēt, gīml…), while the Latin names clearly aren't.

What happened in the middle here? Historically, Greek colonists brought the alphabet to Italy where it was picked up by the Etruscans, who eventually introduced it to Rome.

So my question is: do we know whether the Etruscans called their letters by Greek-style names, or Latin-style ones?

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This is what Rex Wallace wrote in Zikh Rasna: A manual of the Etruscan language and inscriptions (Wallace 2008):

“In our discussion, we employ the ancient Greek letters for the letters of the [Etruscan - Alex B.] alphabet because we do not know by what names the Etruscans referred to them” (p. 20) [emphasis mine - Alex B.].

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I recently came across a strange and probably long-superseded theory that deserves mention here. B. L. Ullman, back in 1927, suggests that the Etruscan letter names were identical to the Latin ones.

According to his theory, those names actually arose in the Greek alphabet: specifically, in the "red" Western Greek variant (with Χ for /ks/ and Ψ for /kh/). He suggests that the Phoenician-derived names died out in this variant, being replaced with a simpler system. Vowels and continuants were named with their pronunciation (so Α was named /a/ and Σ was named /s/), while Κ Ϙ were /ka ku/, and other stops were named with a following -εῖ.

This system would then have been inherited by the Etruscans, and later the Romans; the renaming of fricatives as /es/, /ef/, and so on was a purely Roman development. But the use of -εῖ for naming stops persisted when some innovated letters were accepted back into the "standard" alphabet, such as φεῖ, χεῖ, and ψεῖ.

I would assume modern scholarship has overturned this theory by now—and if nothing else, there's not very much evidence to support it, apart from raw speculation. But it's an interesting possible explanation for where the well-attested Latin names came from.

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