Today I’m going to talk about the Spanish alphabet, but a quick and non-scientific look seems to indicate that the same things apply to the Italian, Portuguese and Catalan alphabets. Not to French or Romanian, though (so it’s probably maybe not a Romance thing – warning, I didn’t check).
Let’s look at the names of the letters in Spanish:
a, be, ce, de, efe, ge, hache, i, jota, ka, ele, eme, ene, eñe, o, pe, cu, erre, ese, te, u, uve, uve doble, equis, i griega, zeta
Irregulars first: zeta can’t be ze because it sounds exactly like ce. Hache can’t be he because it would sound like e. Uve can’t be ve because it’s pronounced like be. Uve doble is literally ‘double ve’, and i griega (‘greek i’) is self explicative as well (though in Latin America is called ye). Cu and ka couldn’t share que/ke so each went a different way. Jota can’t be je because of ge. Equis is an evolution of the latin ex.
Vowels are boring so let’s take them out too. We are left with:
be, ce, de, efe, ge, ele, eme, ene, eñe, pe, erre, ese, te
It’s obvious they took their name from their sound, but – and we get to the raison d’être of this post – why did some letters take it from #e and others from e#e?
Answer is that those in the form of #e are stop occlusives or affricatives. In layman’s terms: those whose sound is interrupted, where the flow of air is cut. Those in the e#e form are continuous, and slide more gracefully if they are supported from a vowel before and after, like a sandwich.
As for why an e as helper vowel, it is because it’s the more neutral and less energetic vowel to pronounce.
Yes, according to this rule, ce should be ece and ge should be ege… but both c and g had an exclusively occlusive stop pronunciation originally (still kept when followed by a, o, and u).
Originally published in The blind mouse.