The spoken Latin names of letters have been given in an answer to another question. I want to know how the letters were referred to in writing. What are the written Latin names of the Latin alphabet's letters? Alpha is the written name of the first Greek letter. Aleph is the written name of the first Hebrew. How did the Romans refer in writing to each alphabetic character?


2 Answers 2


A quick first point: I believe the premise of this question is mistaken: there is not some monumental divide between how a letter is written and how it is spoken. As noted:

  • In Hebrew, the first letter is written "אָלֶף" and spoken "aleph."
  • In Greek, the first letter is written "άλφα" and spoken "alpha."

If we have already established, in the cited question, that the first letter of the Latin alphabet is pronounced as simply "a", it seems unreasonable to suppose another way of writing it.

This makes me say that the letters were written exactly as in English: alone without any additional letters.

Since the OP seemed to indicate that a classical source with three or more letters will do to illustrate this...I adduce Quintilian, who writes at the beginning of the Silver Age:

nam k quidem in nullis verbis utendum puto, nisi quae significant, etiam ut sola ponatur. hoc eo non omisi, quod quidam eam, quotiens a sequatur, necessariam credunt, cum sit c littera, quae ad omnes vocales vim suam perferat. (Quint. Inst. 1 7.10)


an rursus aliae redundent, praeter notam aspirationis, (quae si necessaria est, etiam contrariam sibi poscit) ut K, quae et ipsa quorundam nominum nota est, et Q, cuius similis effectu specieque, nisi quod paulum a nostris obliquatur, Coppa apud Graecos nunc tantum in numero manet, et nostrarum ultima, qua tam carere potuimus quam ψ non quaerimus? (Quint. Inst. 1 4.9)

I find this last quote especially pertinent because he directly opposes the single "Q" with the ("full") Greek spelling "Coppa."

  • I would just like to point out that English letters do have names like the ones i gave in my answer, but this is a really good point.
    – Sam K
    Commented Jul 13, 2016 at 3:53
  • @SamK indeed they do, as I found out this week (e.g. wye for Y). The fact that I have a PhD in linguistics but just found out this week could prove several things, but I like to think it proves that those names have long fallen out of fashion. Commented Oct 13, 2018 at 7:31
  • 1
    @NickNicholas Perhaps they have never been in common use. The full OED (whose print version is 20 volumes and is now updated online) contains 'wye' in the sense of Y-shaped device, but doesn't contain 'wye' meaning the letter. On the other hand, 'aitch' and 'zed' are still in use. But that's about it.
    – rjpond
    Commented Aug 23, 2020 at 16:19

Here is the alphabet: Á, Bē, Cē, Dē, É, Ef, Gē, Hā, I, Kā, El, Em, En, O, Pē, Qū, Er, Es, Tē, Ú, Ix, I Graeca, Zēta

The Wikipedia article is pretty good on this subject, and can be found here. This is also a good resource. Here is an important quote from the latter:

There were no lower case letters at first, and K, Y and Z used only for writing words of Greek origin. The letters J, U and W were added to the alphabet at a later stage to write languages other than Latin. J is a variant of I, U is a variant of V, and W was introduced as a 'double-v' to make a distinction between the sounds we know as 'v' and 'w' which was unnecessary in Latin.

  • 2
    Can you give me a Latin text written in the classical period that uses names of three or more letters? One might be a discussion of alternative spellings of a word or a discussion of abbreviations. Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 18:08
  • @JOHNCORCORAN As the Wikipedia article says, the names of letters weren't used very often, and aren't official (like the Greek letters). This is partially because Latin was a spoken language before a written one, so letters were an afterthought. I'll look around a bit more to see if I can find anything, but I think it will be difficult.
    – Sam K
    Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 19:16
  • 3
    @SamK. All languages are spoken languages before they become written languages.
    – fdb
    Commented Jul 10, 2016 at 23:37
  • @fdb Of course they are, but Latin is unique in that it took a lot longer than most for a written form to be created. This made written Latin seem more of an afterthought, and also explains the regularity of pronounciation (unlike English). There are countless languages in similar situations, but it was just an attempt to explain why the Latin alphabet isn't quite official.
    – Sam K
    Commented Jul 11, 2016 at 0:55
  • 2
    I am sorry, I do not follow your argument. "A lot longer" counting from when?
    – fdb
    Commented Jul 11, 2016 at 8:33

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