How many letters does the Latin alphabet really have?

by Jakub Marian

Tip: See my list of the Most Common Mistakes in English. It will teach you how to avoid mis­takes with com­mas, pre­pos­i­tions, ir­reg­u­lar verbs, and much more (PDF Version).

When you start learning a language written using a writing system other than the Latin alphabet (such as the Arabic script or Devanagari), the number of different shapes you have to learn may seem daunting. The good old Latin (English) alphabet has only 26 letters, after allor does it?

The Latin alphabet used by the Romans (during the Classical Latin period, from the 1st century BCE) had only 23 different letters, which were what we now call uppercase or capital letters:

A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X Y Z

By today’s standards, this would truly be one of the easiest alphabets in the world to learn. The letters J, W, and U were added much later to write languages other than Latin, and lowercase letters developed gradually around the 6th century CE.

However, the Latin alphabet used today (even if we ignore diacritical marks, such as “é”, and ligatures, such as “æ”) is significantly more complicated. Uppercase and lowercase letters often differ so much that they have to be learned as two separate symbols by users of other writing systems, and some letters have italic variants that also differ significantly (that’s not to mention handwriting, but the need to read and write classical cursive has greatly diminished in the last 20 years).

In order to be able to read texts written using the modern Latin alphabet (such as this article), you will have to be able to recognize all of the following characters (grey symbols represent lowercase letters that are essentially the same as the corresponding uppercase letters, only smaller):

A a a
B b
C c
D d
E e
F f f
G g g
H h
I i
J j
K k
L l
M m
N n
O o
P p
Q q
R r
S s
T t
U u
V v
W w
X x
Y y
Z z

There are 45 different shapes you have had to memorize, and I hope you will agree that it wasn’t really that hard. This is something to keep in mind when you try to learn a different writing system.

For example, Japanese Hiragana only consists of 40 different characters, the Arabic alphabet consists of approximately 55 distinct shapes (not counting diacritics), and Devanagari (the script used to write Hindi) also consists of approximately 55 basic shapes (not counting ligatures). Learning these is not really much harder than learning the Latin alphabet. (But, of course, if you want to read anything more than a children’s book in Japanese, you will also have to learn more than 2000 kanji characters…)

By the way, if you haven’t read my guide on how to avoid the most common mistakes in English, make sure to check it out; it deals with similar topics.

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