The Eighth Letter — H

The “H” began as the Egyptian character for plaited skein of hemp, and represented the guttoral rough breathing sound (similar to a cat purring). The Phoenicians and the Sumerians before them continued that pattern, but the Phoenicians called the character kheth, meaning fence. However, even in these alphabets it was the eighth letter.

The Greeks adopted the symbol (dropping the top and bottom crossbars) but since they couldn’t pronounce the sound of ‘h’ in kheth, they simply left the first part of the lettername off and it became eta. and it was used to represent the sound of long ‘e’ as opposed to the short ‘e’ of epsilon. The Etruscans put the crossbars back on but the Romans removed them once again. Although the Romans accepted the letterform, it was one of seven letters that was not on the Trajan Inscription.


The “H” poses the design problem of connecting two strong verticals, rather than pushing them apart. It tends to be a slightly narrow letter (although it usually looks square) with a width that is typically about three-fourths of its height.

Like the “B”, “E”, and “R”, the horizontal stroke is usually slightly above mathematical center. Sometimes it can be placed quite high, but then the letter takes on a mannered, although less boring, look.

Actually the “H” is a very important letter. Along with the cap “O” and lower case “n” and “o”, it is one of the first letters drawn by traditional type designers. It helps, with these other characters, to build the foundation for stroke weight, proportions, and spacing relationships for the rest of the alphabet.

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

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