Roman 'V' for 'U'

Avatar Image
heathfield | 13:31 Fri 07th Apr 2006 | History
19 Answers
Anyone know the real reason for the Romans using the letter 'V' in their inscriptions in place of the letter 'U'? (Like in 'Jvlivs Ceasar'). When it comes to a name like 'Flavius', (Flavivs), the two Vs in the name are pronounced very differently. I somehow feel there must be more to it than 'It made it easier to carve', since they didn't seem to have any trouble with the letters S, C, O, etc. Anybody?


1 to 19 of 19rss feed

Best Answer

No best answer has yet been selected by heathfield. Once a best answer has been selected, it will be shown here.

For more on marking an answer as the "Best Answer", please visit our FAQ.

There is a story from the small town I'm form in Wales - it's nickname is "The Old Parish".

It goes that in the 1700's someone died aged 28, and in those days, the age of the deceased would be carved on the coffin lid.

Carving curved letters was hard, so the carver used 7777 (ie 7x 4), upon which it was commented that the deceased was older than Moses - hence "The Old Parish" (the rugby ground is called the four sevens and the team nickname is the old parish).

I would suspect that this would be a similar reason behind the V instead of a U - carving a U into stone is not easy, at least not as easy as a V, but that doesn't explain the other letters?

Probably should have read your entire post first!

Does anyone know now how latin was actually pronounced in those day's?
Latin, like all languages, is historical in nature, i.e., it derives from other languages. In that context, one site (lebathor on Semitic Language origins) states: The letter Waw (our modern "W") was adopted by the Greeks, from the Phoenicians. The intersecting portion on top, similar to our Y, was curved on top, like an open semi-circle. This became the Greek letter Upsilon about 600 BC. Sometimes it is written as a Y and sometimes as a U. The lowercase letter is written as a u. This was also adopted by the Romans, from the Greeks. The Romans gave the letter its capital V shape about 114 AD. Medieval scribes wrote two VV�s together about 1000 AD. VV was also written UU and the letter came to be known as the �double U�, written as W. Medieval scribes used the V for a consonant and used the U for a vowel. The V symbol represented mainly the 'u' sound but could also be used for the 'v' sound. In some forms of handwriting, V was written with a rounded bottom, but it still represented both the vowel u and the consonant v.The development of W and U was very similar to the development of I and J, but that's another story. There does appear to be some validity in heathfield's surmise that curved letters were more difficult to carve in stone, as well...

Question Author

Very worthy answer, Clanad, thank you. I always thought the Romans, once in northern Europe, and coming across the W sound, decided represent it by pairing two letters that aren't found together in Latin, namely a G and a U. Thus we have the french name of Guillaume, The Romans would have pronounced this (near enough) as Willaum. Later, those unaware of the rule would read it and pronounce it as Gwee-yome. But the european medieval W instead of a GU is considered to come from the Runic 'wynn' represented by two boxes side by side - which again is possibly based on a double Greek omega...Fascinating stuff, and could go on and on, but....

Mata Hari - no we don't. But there is intense scholarly research into how pronounciation changes in populations over time. This has shown that changes tend to follow very similar patterns, no matter what language is spoken. By tracking back and correcting these changes they can come up with a pretty good approximation of what speech sounded like in the distant past.

Gouldc - just as well the deceased wasn't aged 33, or some other awkward number!

because V was the letter, for both vowel and consonant sounds. U developed later as a variant - there's some evidence that people started cutting and holding quill pens at a different angle. Clanad, surely V long predates 114 AD?
According to the definitive Dr James B. Calvert, Associate Professor Emeritus of Engineering, University of Denver, Colorado, jno;
The Latin alphabet of 23 letters was derived in the 600's BC from the Etruscan alphabet of 26 letters, which was in turn derived from the archaic Greek alphabet, which came from the Phoenician. The letters J, U, and W of the modern alphabet were added in medieval times, and did not appear in the classical alphabet, except that J and U could be alternative forms for I and V. A comparison of the Greek and Latin alphabets shows the close relation between the two...
Sorry, jno... just re-read your question and of course, you are correct. The Phoenician alphabet only went up to T. All the letters beyond T are later additions to the alphabet. The Romans added V at once, which was sorely needed... (Source, ibid.)
My aunt was talking about how w and g are the same letter and had many examples. Why don't you list some for me?

Well, how many words beginning with w and g were closely related before you start insulting my aunt.

There's an interesting book called The Alphabet by David Sacks which goes into a lot of detail as to how letters evolved.

spacechimp: warranty and guarantee are the same word (though coming into the English language by different routes). Ward and guard likewise, and warrior and guerrilla are related.

ABC Et Cetera by Humez & Humez is a good book about Latin and its alphabet.

I believe those are the very same examples my aunt used. Thank you all the same.
Grr, I keep repeating words. I should have said "thanks anyway".

I am not sure that I would take the word of an assoc prof of engineering on the influence of latin letters.

Quintilian has something to say about old spellings

Although there are old inscriptions, the oldest latin poem to be dug up and identified is around 25 BC,

Elegiacs by Gallus from Qasr Ibrim Journal of Roman Studies 1979 Anderson and Nisbet

Quom and maxumus and god knows what Oh and Kato for Cato etc but- the u's are not v's in the document as far as I recall. They refer to quintilian alot, whose immensely boring treatise on Latin grammar first or second century is still to be had, and read if you want.

your aunt's a smart cookie spacechimp, harken unto her.
We had a very interesting chat during our walk.
For example, I learn that in Japanese you say "wa" after the object and "wah" after the subject. It could be the other way around. :(

I resent the implication that my aunt is a biscuit.

Question Author
Thanks for the answers, guys. I hadn't realised that the letter U was such a late invention. I suppose it could have been derived from the V through the use of cursive script? Spacechimp's aunt might also have told him about 'Galles' being the French (and Italian) name for Wales. (In Italy, I've heard this pronounced as 'Gwa-less'). Doubling up on the pronounciation of indiviual alphabetic letters is still the thing. Like the soft and hard C in 'circus', or the G in 'gorge'. Bernard Shaw had a few things to say about that! It's reckoned the Thai alphabet of 44 consonants and 11 vowels is the only alphabet that can be used to write all the world's languages, including tonal languages like Chinese - with the single exception of the X click in Zulu. Thai can even be used to write English with any UK regional accent you prefer. Thanks, too, for the tips on the books on the subject.

1 to 19 of 19rss feed

Do you know the answer?

Roman 'V' for 'U'

Answer Question >>