The Bodacious Letter B

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Always a bridesmaid and never a bride, B is the also-ran, the second best, the afterthought, the sidekick to the alphaletter A. When things fall apart, we go to Plan B; we’ll watch B-movies with B-list actors on basic cable if we can’t fall asleep; we’ll pass on grade-B meats and eggs and B-rated bonds.

Despite its second banana billing, B has shown some incredible staying power.  The oldest B appears, like A, in one of the earliest known alphabet inscriptions, discovered in central Egypt and dating to around 1800 BCE. As the early alphabet crept out of Egypt and into the surrounding areas, B was prominent in the different variations that popped up in different cultures, most notably in the Phoenician alphabet, which our alphabet and most other modern ones are ultimately descended from.

Our House

Like the other Phoenician letters, the ancient B was probably adapted from an Egyptian glyph and named for a familiar object, in this case, bayt or beth, meaning “house.” Its shape was very similar to the Egyptian “reed shelter” hieroglyph, but simplified for writing with an ink brush. It wound up looking sort of like a lowercase g.

It was the first consonant in the alphabet and represented the same sound then that it does today—what linguists call a voiced bilabial stop (that is, the sound uses the vocal cords, is formed by both lips, and involves the stopping of air through the nose). It’s one of the easier letter sounds to make, because it doesn’t require the use of the tongue or teeth, and can be heard very early on when kids first start to speak. Spend more than a few minutes with a baby and the conversation will inevitably turn to “buh buh bah buh buah.”

The bayt was borrowed and adapted by the Phoenicians’ neighbors, including the Jews and the Greeks. In modern Hebrew, the letter is called beth, and it still has the same sound, place in line, and meaning. The only thing that really changed was its shape. The Hebrew letter symbol can represent two different sounds, a B sound or a V one, that are distinguished by the appearance or absence of a dot called a dagesh in the center of the letter.

Beta Version

The Greeks also kept bayt in the same place and used it for the same sound, but changed its name by adding a Greek-style ending and turning it into beta. With the name change, the letter lost the “house,” and all other meaning; beta had no significance beyond denoting the letter. The shape was also changed, and a second loop was added at the bottom, making it look like a backwards modern B. Around 600 BCE, they flipped the letter, so it looked more like the symbol we know today. Beta lives on in modern English, particularly in scientific and technical language, where usually denotes weaker, later, or more refined versions of alpha-designated objects.

The Greeks loaned their alphabet to the Etruscans, an Italian tribe, sometime in the 700s BCE. They then passed it on to the Latins (early Romans), who, in turn, passed it on to almost everyone they conquered in Europe. The Etruscans might have shortened—and the Romans most certainly did shorten—beta’s name to something like bee or bay. The Anglo Saxons and then the English kept calling it bay until pronunciations started shifting between the 1300s and 1600s CE, though some other European languages still call it bay.

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August 15, 2011 - 10:35am
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