The Twenty first Letter — U

The story of the letter U is also the story of the letters V, W, Y, and is also related to the letter F.

In ancient times, a snake like mythical creature called Cerastes was depicted by the Egyptians as a hieroglyph to represent a consonant sound roughly equivalent to our F. This was the forerunner of the Phoenician aww, the most prolific of all their letters. The way gave birth to our f, u, v, w and y. It looked like our present dat y, and represented the semi-consonant sound of w, as in the words know or wing.

Sometime between 900-800 BBC the Greeks adopted the Phoenician was, and used it as he basis for not one, but two letters in their alphabet. Th upsilon for the vowel U sound, and the digamma, for the sound that equates to our letter f.

The upsilon form was used by the Etruscans and later by the Romans. The Romans used the letter for both the semi-consonant W and the vowel U, but again, the form looked more like a Y, than either then V or U. In Roman times the sounds W, V, or U as we currently use them, were not systematically distinguished: context usually determined the correct pronunciations.

As a result their sharp angled Monumental V was used as a w in words like VENI, pronounced “wainey”, and as the vowel U in words like “IVLiVS”, pronounced “Julius”.


The U is categorized as a medium width letter, but since it does not occur on the Trajan Inscription there is no Monumental model for it. The U can take on three forms. For example, it may be an enlarged version of the lowercase u, where the left stroke curves to meet a vertical right stroke. Or it may be symmetrical strokes united by a curved baseline. Or finally, there is a thick/thin version where the left stroke is thick, and the right stroke is a hairline, the thick/thin version, with no baseline serif is by far the most popular design.
With credit to Allen Haley,

Upper & Lower Case magazine, a typographic centered publication last published from 1970 to 1999.


About johndiestler

Retired community college professor of graphic design, multimedia and photography, and chair of the fine arts and media department.
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