The ABCs of ‘Abecedary’

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published November 25, 2005, issue of November 25, 2005.

Harold B. Lehrman writes:

“Unable to find ‘abecedary’ in Webster’s New International Dictionary, The Century Dictionary, or the OED [The Oxford English Dictionary], I call upon a philologist to enlighten me. John Noble Wilford used this word in his article ‘A Is for Ancient’ in The New York Times of November 9.”

When someone can’t find a word in The Oxford English Dictionary, there are several possibilities. Either the word does not exist, or it is a modern coinage that hadn’t made it into the OED, or it is there and was missed because the standard, two-volume, 4,116-page edition of this mammoth dictionary has very small print. Mr. Lehrman must have misplaced his magnifying glass, for having used mine I can assure him that the OED has half a column on “abecedary,” and another half-column on “abecedarian.”

“Abecedary,” from medieval Latin abecedarium — a word formed from the first four letters of the Roman alphabet — goes back to the 15th century in English, when it signified a child’s alphabet book or primer. Subsequently, in the 16th century, it took on the additional meaning of “alphabetical.” Neither of these meanings survived into modern times, both having become archaic by the 18th century. “Abecedarian,” referring to a child who is learning the alphabet or is of alphabet-learning age, remained in use longer, the OED’s last citation of it dating to 1881.

Having answered Mr. Lehrman’s question, however, we find ourselves faced with another one: Why don’t we say “abegedary” instead of “abecedary”? Or, to put it differently, why does a child learn his or her ABCs and not ABGs? After all, if we look at the Greek alphabet, from which the Roman alphabet derives, its first three letters are Alpha, Beta and Gamma. In this, Greek remained faithful to the Phoenician-Hebrew alphabet on which it in turn was based, which begins with Alef, Bet and Gimel. How, then, did C sneak ahead of G in Rome?

You can blame the Etruscans for that. This rather mysterious people, which inhabited central Italy and gave its name to the region of Toscana or Tuscany, spoke a language of its own before it switched to Latin after the Romans conquered its territory. We are familiar with this language from a large number of Etruscan inscriptions that have been found — and the mystery is that, although these inscriptions are written in what we today call the Roman alphabet, the language in which they are written is unrelated to Latin or to anything else spoken in ancient Italy. Moreover, it has not been deciphered by linguists to this day, so no one can be sure where the Etruscans came from or to what ethnic stock they originally belonged. The most accepted theory, first proposed by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, is that they reached Italy from Asia Minor in an early historical period.

It was the Etruscans, at any rate, who were the first inhabitants of Italy to adopt the Greek alphabet. They took it over from the Euboeans, Greek colonists from the island of Euboea. In doing so, they preserved the order of its opening letters so that it started with A-B-G. Yet because they did not have a hard “g” sound in their language, they pronounced the Greek “g” like a “k,” so the Gamma in effect became a “Kamma.” This left them with two letters for the same sound, the “Kamma” and the Greek Kappa. Eventually the latter was relegated to a secondary place.

The Latin-speaking Romans took their alphabet from the Etruscans, so the Etruscan “Kamma,” which looked very much like a modern English “C,” was used by the Romans for the “k” sound, too. (“C” in Latin is always hard, as in “cat” or “cool”; there’s never a soft “s” sound, as in “city” or “cease.”) And since Latin also had the hard “g” that Etruscan lacked, it was now necessary to invent a new letter to represent it. This was done by placing a crossbar on the lower cusp of the “C” to create a “G.” On the other hand, Latin did not have a “z” sound, and so the seventh letter of the Euboean-Etruscan alphabet, Zeta, was dropped and “G” was inserted in its place.

The Latin alphabet now started with ABC — which, with the addition of the old Greek Delta “D,” produced the medieval Latin abecedarium. The only remaining question you may have is how the hard Latin “c” became the soft English “c” of “city,” so that we call our alphabet the “ay-bee-see” and not the “ay-bee-kee.” This happened by means of a common phonetic phenomenon known as palatalization, whereby consonants originally articulated in the back of the mouth, like hard “g” and hard “k,” move up to the palate in the middle of the mouth — especially when they come before vowels that are pronounced in the front of the mouth, like “e” or “i.” This is why English “c” remains hard like a “k” before back vowels like “o” or “a” but is soft like an “s” before front vowels, just as “g” becomes “j” in words like “gem’ or “gist.” And since the “ee” of “ay-bee-see” is a front vowel, the “c” of ABC is soft.

ABC? QED!

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Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.



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