Book 1. iv. 10-11 The old Latin alphabet


(detail) frontispiece from the Aberdeen Bestiary – portrait of Isidore






(detail) Brit.Lib. Harley MS 3941/1 f.4r. ( 9thC)

‘Seventeen letters..’

on which see  the post re Bk 1.iii.4-6:  ‘Origin of the Alphabet’ .

Isidore’s views are not exactly borne out by  archaeology and epigraphic studies, though it is true that various additions, subtractions and modifications were needed to adapt  Greco-Phoenician letters to the needs of Latin speakers.

The Praeneste fibula. Earliest evidence of Latin language in written form. The alphabet itself is still recognisably archaic and Greek. Dated variously – most recently to c.8thC BC.  See ‘Useful Links’ at end.

The table below (left) includes the form of the Praeneste fibula’s alphabet – see the left-hand column. The table below (right) shows how regional usages diverge.












The earliest inscriptions (on the Praeneste fibula, the Formio vase and others) show ‘H’ as an oblong divided horizontally by a bar; in effect an ‘H’ that is closed across the top and bottom.


Isidore includes ‘G’ in his seventeen original, legitimate, letters but its form had only gradually evolved to suit Latin.


(see Bk 1.iii.4-6)

from: Egbert, loc.cit.

Graffiti from Pompeii (c.1stC AD)

The Latin letters in 9thC Spain:


Reading medieval documents:

  • Dr. Tillotson’s  ‘Medieval Writing’ site provides a list of helpful online sites and tutorials [HERE]
  • The same site’s article ‘Why Paleography Sucks’ [HERE}
  • English ‘National Archives’ site has a set of tutorials to help students read medieval documents. Documents studied from the years 1086, 1199, 1275, 1349, 1419, 1422, 1436, 1481, 1489. [HERE]
  • Differences between Medieval and Classical Latin usage – see page from ‘Beginners’ Latin’ at the English National Archive. [HERE]


Palaeography and Epigraphy – ancient and classical Latin.

A number of solid studies were written between the late nineteenth century and the 1930s. Some are still standard so don’t be put off by publication dates. All available through internet.archive.

  • James C. Egbert, Introduction to the Study of Latin Inscriptions (1896).
  • John Sandys, Latin Epigraphy: An Introduction to the Study of Latin Inscriptions (1919)
  • Edward Maunde Thompson, An Introduction to Greek and Latin palaeography (1912)


Articles (available through JSTOR)

  • Myra L. Uhlfelder, ‘The Romans on Linguistic Change’,  The Classical Journal, Vol. 59, No. 1 (Oct., 1963), pp. 23-30.
  • Paul Merritt Basset, ‘The Use of History in the Chronicon of Isidore of Seville’, History and Theory, Vol. 15, No. 3 (Oct., 1976), pp. 278-292.
  • Arnaldo Momigliano, ‘Tradition and the Classical Historian’, History and Theory, Vol. 11, No. 3 (1972), pp. 279-29.

* Highly recommended * –    T.J. Brown, ‘Latin Palaeography Since Traube’, Transactions of the Cambridge Bibliographical Society, Vol. 3, No. 5 (1963), pp. 361-381



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