The Second Letter—B

Why is B the second letter? Again, looking at basic human needs, soon after food comes shelter. From the Egyptian to the Phoenician a symbol evolution can be easily seen. The symbol at times looked somewhat like a enclosed courtyard, in fact, the hieroglyph meant house or palace but the sound was closer to a ‘h’ than ‘b’. The Phoenician‘s used the symbol but changed the sound that accompanied it to ’b’ and gave it the name beth. The Egyptians did have a symbol for the sound ‘b’, it was a leg, meaning to go or to walk. The Phoenicians apparently felt that this wouldn’t work for them and since their word for house was beth why not use the picture for the ‘b’ sound. This root word can still be seen in various Hebrew, Arabic and other middle eastern languages. Bethel = ‘house of God’, Bethlehem = ‘house of bread’.

The Greeks changed the name to beta and probably did not understand that the letter was supposed to look like a house. If you flip the letter on its side, it could look like a house with the roof caved in, but that’s a stretch. Again the process of turning and inverting created an angular character which becomes the beautiful round Roman letter Bay, we know today.

A little about the curves of the Romans. Curving letters is as much a function of the tools as it is a style. It’s true that curves could have been used earlier, and in fact they were used quite extensively when symbols were early pictographs, but during the process of simplification, the curves became straight lines. This was carried to the extreme in the development of cuneiform, straight lines became the typographic standard. The choice to remove curves came as the stylus was no longer drawing but instead it was pressing. As the tools for writing were primarily clay and stylus, the concept of pressing-in straight lines with a wedge-shaped stylus was a vast improvement over dragging a curved line through wet clay. After the Egyptians created papyrus, brush and ink became the tools of writing, and curves were much easier to control. The Greeks, following the Phoenician, kept the straight lines for most of their letters, dragging through soft wax on tablets, but curves had returned in a limited fashion.

In the time of the Romans, parchment had replaced papyrus, flat pen nibs, and brushes were improved, and the Romans became known as a nation of calligraphers. Even stone inscriptions were painted on first and then chiseled later. Graffiti on the walls of Pompeii still show vivid brushed curves, touting one gladiator over another.

Structure includes what we call “capital letters”, or “uppercase”. The reason for the name “capital” is the the letterforms were above the capitals on Roman buildings, stating the purpose of the building or the dedication. “Upper case” comes from the storage cabinet that printers used to organize and store the hard lead, individually cast, moveable letters. Obviously neither title was used until the contrasting “lower case” letters were in common use.
There were many structural changes that came slower than the development of letterforms. The Greeks offered vowels, even though the Phoenicians already had the letter shapes. Another Greek concept was to create space between the letters. Onewouldthinkthatitwouldbeimpossibletoreadsomethingwithoutspacesbutitcanbedone.

With credit to Allen Haley,
Upper & Lower Case magazine, a typographic centered publication last published from 1970 to 1999

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