I don't know too many languages, but the ones I know have more elaborate names for their letters than the monosyllabicity of names for English letters. (E.g. - I'll pick on Greek here - ay instead of alpha, bee for beta, etc.) How did these short names evolve, and when?

Further, why do nine of the letter-names (B, C, D, E, G, P, T, V, Z) end with "ee" (as in "bee"), while six others (F, L, M, N, S, X) begin with "eh" (as in "ef")? And why do (H, K, Q, R, W, sometimes Z) have less orthodox names? (Is "ar" for "R" a corruption of "ehr", perhaps?) "J" needs to be different, so as not to be confused with "G". The remaining ones (vowels, incidentally: A, I, O, U, Y) I understand as not possible to fit into any regular pattern.

Maybe the answer is simply that letter-names, like the language, are not logically created; rather evolved erratically. But I want to make sure. Does anyone have any answers?

  • 6
    Pronunciation of the letters varies from place to place. For example: it seems you say "zee" ... but that is not the usual way to pronounce Z in some other places.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Aug 10, 2011 at 3:19
  • Of your nine end with "ee" letters, seven end in "e" in Spanish (be, ce, de, e, ge, pe, te); of your six begin with "eh", five begin and end with "e" in Spanish (efe, ele, eme, ene, ese). I hypothesis a common etymology in the names of letters in Latin, but I have no evidence for that. Commented Aug 10, 2011 at 12:26
  • I don't know names of letters in Latin; do you?
    – Daniel
    Commented Aug 10, 2011 at 12:27
  • perhaps of interest: english.stackexchange.com/q/34011/10899 Commented Aug 10, 2011 at 12:49

1 Answer 1


IIRC the Greek names for the letters came from earlier semitic languages where the symbols were based on pictures, alpha=ox (you have to turn A upside down and squint to see an ox's head) etc

English didn't really need words for letters unless you were trying to teach children to read, so simple names that (almost) matched the sounds made sense.

ps. Reciting the names of letters in foreign languages classes went out of fashion in schools - because it would confuse the pronunciation of the sounds. Which is annoying when any trip/call to a foreign country involves pronouncing flight numbers, email addresses or part numbers.

  • 1
    Was there any rhyme or reason to the new system of letter-names?
    – Daniel
    Commented Aug 10, 2011 at 11:05
  • 1
    Certainly the original Phoenician alphabet had names for letters based on prototypical words beginning with that letter: Wikipedia has a fascinating and AFAIK accurate discussion at secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Phoenician_alphabet and secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Acrophony. But even as early as Arabic the names of several letters start to simplify, losing final consonants or syllables: compare ba with beth or giim with gimel.
    – Ant
    Commented Aug 10, 2011 at 14:28

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