Why do letters have letter names? (B = "bee", H = "aitch"...)
April 14, 2013 12:24 PM   Subscribe

I first came across this about 20 years ago in a Calvin & Hobbes strip where Hobbes taunts his friend: "Calvin and Susie, sitting in a tree. Kay-Eye-Ess-Ess-Eye-En-Gee!" I never understood why Hobbes was making "words" out of letters; I assumed it was something unique to comics (or tigers). Then today, a poem linked to in this FPP reminded me of that old comic strip and got me thinking: Why is there an entire parallel alphabet to spell out the letters of the alphabet?

Why on earth would you spell a letter out, when the letter itself is its own spelling? This is sort of a confusing question to pose, but I am certain there are folks here who understand what I mean and can help explain the reason for letter names. Are they still used? The Wikipedia page I link to above says, "The names of the letters are for the most part direct descendants, via French, of the Latin (and Etruscan) names." But even if these are vestiges of ancestor languages, why did those languages have names for something that is its own name? Do other languages have letter names for their alphabets?

I can't wrap my head around the idea that, technically speaking, the letter Q is named "que" (or that the letter Z is, hilariously, "izzard"), and moreover that these are real and proper words -- in the Scrabble Dictionary, no less! Are these names interchangeable with the letters they represent -- can I spell "world" as "double-u-o-ar-el-dee")? Do any language folks have an explanation of what's going on here? Thanks in advance for your help.

(Bonus: Find me a link to that Calvin & Hobbes strip!)
posted by andromache to Writing & Language (29 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
The strip you're looking for, via a Calvin and Hobbes search engine.

Don't we live in a wondrous age, where things like the latter exist?
posted by demagogue at 12:31 PM on April 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


Oh my word. I am a child again. Demagogue, I am tempted to mark this question as "resolved". Thanks!
posted by andromache at 12:33 PM on April 14, 2013


Hahaha, Hobbes is going to Smooch City.
posted by andromache at 12:34 PM on April 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


What letters have, but don't represent inherently as part of their shape, is pronunciations of names of the letter. Those spellings are intended to convey the pronunciations of those names as unambiguously as possible, using the English spelling system - very recursive. "Izzard" is apparently a name for z in some dialects (not sure which) in the same way that British/Canadians/etc say "zed" and not "zee". I don't think that technically q is named "que" in written English, but that letter sequence does characterize the pronunciation of its name pretty well.
posted by advil at 12:37 PM on April 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Curious. Thinking on this I'm wondering if it's common to spell out letters if the writer is communicating a sing-songy speech pattern?
posted by PorcineWithMe at 12:38 PM on April 14, 2013


My theory: by spelling it out, you're referring to the sound of the letter, rather than the shape or appearance or concept of the letter. For instance, "jay" means not just "the letter J" (which is how it's defined in the dictionary"), but also the way the letter J sounds. So it was appropriate for Bill Watterson to use those spellings to indicate the way it sounds for someone to say "K-I-S-S-I-N-G" — this makes it clear that you're not supposed to read it as "kissing." But if you want to refer to something in the shape of the letter J, you wouldn't write "jay," you'd write "J" (for instance, a "J-hook").
posted by John Cohen at 12:38 PM on April 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


Ideally, each letter stands for a single sound. Due to the different ways that languages put sounds together it is not always possible for speakers of a given language to pronounce individual sounds. It may be physically possible for an English speaker to say "p" alone but it goes against the rules of what we consider a "correct" syllable. The rules for English lead us to consider all syllables to have at least one vowel (or a syllabic consonant). Thus we say "p" as "pee" or "puh" or such like with an inserted vowel. The "names" of letters in English are mostly just those pronunciations written down in an understandable way.
posted by Jehan at 12:39 PM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


I thought Q was "cue," for what it's worth.
posted by stopgap at 12:40 PM on April 14, 2013


Also, I think aitch/haitch is another difference between American and British (like zee/zed).
posted by stopgap at 12:42 PM on April 14, 2013


In DC, you'll often see I Street spelled Eye Street with certain addresses, to avoid confusion with the number 1. So there's one reason.
posted by devinemissk at 12:42 PM on April 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


It might be helpful to think about a foreign language where the letters are pronounced very differently than you'd expect. For instance, in the French alphabet, X, Y, and Z are "ixe," "i grec," and "zède." (In case you don't speak French, those are pronounced roughly like "eeks," "ee-greck," and "zed.") Don't you think it makes sense to have a way to represent in writing what those things sound like, instead of just assuming that everyone knows?
posted by John Cohen at 12:43 PM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


A couple of years ago, I was talking to an acquaintance in Slovenia (about how hard it was for my kids to learn to spell in English) and she said that in Slovene, the names of the letters are the sounds of the letters, so that a PDF is said puh-duh-fuh (or something) instead of pee-dee-eff.
posted by leahwrenn at 12:45 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


John Cohen: "In case you don't speak French, those are pronounced roughly like "eeks," "ee-greck," and "zed.""

As another point of reference - in Spanish, those same letters are pronounced ay-kees, ee gree-egga and seta.
posted by jquinby at 12:46 PM on April 14, 2013


It's not just in foreign languages - double-you is not how W sounds.
posted by restless_nomad at 12:50 PM on April 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


I totally remember that Calvin and Hobbes strip and I always assumed it was to make it clear that he was drawing out the letter sounds so as to sound taunting.

I don't know much from a technical perspective about why we have letter names versus sounds but I can tell you from experience teaching phonics that, at least in English, it's important because some letters have different sounds, especially in combination with other letters. "A", for example, can be hard or soft and also teams up with letters like "I". The hard sound is the same as the name of the letter but the soft sound isn't, so it's important to be able to name the symbol and not just the sound.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 1:02 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


It also seems like a practical problem would be that in different dialects and accents the same sound might actually correspond to different written letters.

And of course so much of spelling in English is not phonetic - if you were to name letters after how "forecastle" or "Worcester" are pronounced, for example, several would end up being silent.
posted by XMLicious at 1:03 PM on April 14, 2013


Letters having names is called a Phonetic Alphabet and the reason, as mentioned above, is to make it unambiguous what letter you're saying.

It's especially useful with noisy forms of communications like a radio. For example if I'm spelling a word that starts with M it's hard to tell if I said M or N over a scratchy radio connection.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 1:07 PM on April 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Letters have one name, but several to many different pronunciations in different contexts. "Kay" names the letter without having to name each of its different possible pronunciations.
posted by cmoj at 1:15 PM on April 14, 2013


In the context of the Calvin & Hobbes strip, rendering the letters as words also emphasizes the singsong aspect of the taunt -- there's a specific rhythm and melody to it, and so as a kid would yell or sing it, the individual letters sound like words. (Sort of a Mairzy Doats thing.)
posted by scody at 1:39 PM on April 14, 2013


My somewhat uneducated guess is that this has something to do with the fact that the Hebrew letters all have names which are actual words. For instance Gimel, the third letter of the Hebrew alphabet (related to the Latin C or G), means "camel".

I'm not sure if the Phoenician alphabet -- which both the Hebrew and Latin alphabets descended from -- had letter names/words, or whether it's a coincidence that this exists in two different yet somewhat related alphabets.

I have a vague memory that the Egyptian and Mesopotamian pictograms evolved into alphabets of sorts, and that the subject of the pictogram (which represented a literal image) was the "name" of the letter it represented. So to go back to the camel example, maybe you'd have a pictogram that represented "camel", and then over time it evolved to represent the letter C, for camel. Eventually people started thinking of them somewhat separately, so you have a letter C which happens to be called "camel" verbally. Sort of like the slang term for "L" being "hockey stick", or the French term for "Y" being "I Grec", or "Greek I".
posted by Sara C. at 1:41 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


a be ce de e efe ge ache i jota ka ele eme ene o pe qü erre ese te u ve dobleve equis y-griega zeta
posted by signal at 2:37 PM on April 14, 2013


Lots of helpful responses here. Thanks all!

I don't think that technically q is named "que"

I thought Q was "cue," for what it's worth.


Whoop. "Cue" = Q.

In DC, you'll often see I Street spelled Eye Street with certain addresses, to avoid confusion with the number 1.

That is great fact -- love that.

Letters having names is called a Phonetic Alphabet and the reason, as mentioned above, is to make it unambiguous what letter you're saying.

It's especially useful with noisy forms of communications like a radio. For example if I'm spelling a word that starts with M it's hard to tell if I said M or N over a scratchy radio connection.


That's not quite right in this case -- I get that "Alpha, Bravo, Charlie" etc. are good for distinguishing letters over a radio, but the letter names "A, Bee, Cee" Etc. are not. That's the thing that confuses me: they do in several characters what the letters do in just one.

So the consensus seems to be that the names are more or less a pronunciation guide. I see the point that, in other languages employing an identical or similar alphabet to ours, the same characters have different pronunciations, and so have different names. But: If I am (say) a Spanish speaker who is learning English, and I see that the letter L is named "ell" in English, I still need to know how to pronounce the letters in the word "ell" in order to know the name of L. It is, as advil says, recursive. Plus, with the "double-u" example (or "I Griega" in Spanish), it seems to me that the names are not a great pronunciation guide. I suppose they are better than nothing.

Sara C.'s response was along the lines of what I was thinking -- that letters evolved from pictograms; pictograms depicted things; and those things had a spoken name. As pictograms became letters, letter names retained some trace of the word for the thing that the pictogram depicted in the first place. (Eschew obfuscation, that's what I always say!)

In the case of the comic strip specifically, I think John Cohen and scody have it: the letters must have been written out to emphasize Hobbes' taunting song.

If anyone has more ideas, keep em coming, I love this stuff.
posted by andromache at 2:49 PM on April 14, 2013


The French also double their Vs, and not their Us.
posted by emelenjr at 2:55 PM on April 14, 2013


Re: w/doubleyou
W does not at all sound like doubleyou, because it is a new(ish), made up letter. It is simply two Us stuck together. The name doubleyou literally (haha) describes what it is, not what it sounds like.

I seem to remember it came to Britain (and therefore English) with the Norman conquest. It certainly doesnt exist in Latin, and so when the Norman ladies were embroidering the Bayeux Tapestry, depicting the Norman Conquest (a few years after the conquest itself), they had to use two Vs stuck together to show what was now a common letter in English.
posted by tonylord at 3:29 PM on April 14, 2013


In the C&H strip, it's more to emphasise the song aspect than the taunting aspect. Because we read words as a whole,
K.I.S.S.I.N.G still reads as a single word when read in your head...so the phonetic way is much closer to hearing it how you would if someone were singing at you.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 4:59 PM on April 14, 2013


It's not just in foreign languages - double-you is not how W sounds.

I suggested thinking of a foreign language where the letters sound very different from what you'd "expect," as a native English speaker. We expect all the letters to sound the way they do in the English alphabet, simply because that's what we're used to. They're all arbitrary, even though it seems like there's something inherently obvious about the squiggly line "S" being pronounced "ess."
posted by John Cohen at 5:13 PM on April 14, 2013


restless_nomad: It's not just in foreign languages - double-you is not how W sounds.
In that one case, the name describes the history of the letter, instead of its pronunciation. At one point "w" would be written as "uu", and eventually the double-letter became a ligature (a contraction of the two characters, for ease in writing), and then a letter in its own right.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:08 PM on April 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


in other languages employing an identical or similar alphabet to ours, the same characters have different pronunciations, and so have different names.

I've been thinking about this a bit more, and I think it is more that in other languages, the letters have different names, and so the names have different pronunciations.

There are three factors in play here -- (i) the abstract concept that is a particular letter, which is something that (ii) has a particular use in the spelling system. The spelling system in a language like English or French involves an extremely complicated mapping of symbol sequences to sounds, so it is hard to say that any symbol corresponds to any particular sound, but there is a rough mapping, and it is a little cleaner in languages like Spanish. Because an individual letter is often useful for educational purposes, and in certain special cases like acronyms, middle initials, etc., we also have (iii) a name for the abstract entity (independent of how that entity is used in spelling), which has a pronunciation. In general, the relationship between a concept and the sound of its name is arbitrary. However, in this case it is very often that the name is _somehow_ related to one of the sounds that the letter can map onto -- though most of these sounds are not pronounceable any any given language without minimally supplementing them up to a syllable. ("w" is a great example of where this mapping breaks, illustrating greater arbitrariness! "c" is also a useful case to chew on, given that most of its uses in English spelling don't involve the sound of its name's initial consonant, though some do.)

Complicating this is that in most cases when writing with the latin alphabet, we don't normally use the spelling of a letter name. Rather the written name for a letter is the symbol of that letter itself, i.e. the name in writing for W is usually just "W", but pronounced "double you". So we aren't really spelling these particular words alphabetically at all, but using a logographic system. The alphabetic spelling forms for letter names seem to exist for real corner cases where one wants to be completely unambiguous, or illustrate some difference ("zed" vs "zee"), or teach someone the pronunciation but without using IPA or some such.

One analogy might be with digits (or numbers expressed with digits in general) where a more logographic system and an alphabet system co-exist. E.g. there is the concept of the number two, that has a name "two" and a symbol for the concept "2" that is pronounced (in isolation) with that name (we even have a name for the category of the symbol as opposed to the concept: "numeral" vs. "number"). In this case both written forms of the name ("2" and "two") are used sometimes -- what is different is just conventions about when which form of the name can be used. Numbers/digits in analogy to (ii) above also have a use outside just the pure concept and its name, e.g. things like arithmetic.
posted by advil at 5:47 AM on April 15, 2013


They have names so that if, for example, someone asks, 'how do you spell cucumber', then that question can be answered using speech.

A letter like C and B couldn't be pronounced if it didn't have a name. Letters like M, U, and R could though.
posted by iamsuper at 11:24 AM on April 15, 2013


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