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January 22, 2020

A Beautiful Combination Of Art And Letters

A letter is a grapheme (written character) in an alphabetic system of writing; an example is the Greek alphabet and all of its descendants. Letters compose phonemes and each phoneme represents a phone (sound) in the spoken form of the language. Letters also appear in abjads (alphabets with consonants only).

Written signs in other writing systems are best called syllabograms (which denote asyllable) or logograms (which denote a word or phrase).

“Letter,” borrowed from Old French lettre, entered Middle English around AD 1200, eventually displacing the native English term bocstaf (i.e. bookstaff). Letter derives from Latin littera, which may have derived, via Etruscan, from the Greek “διφθέρα” (writing tablet). The Middle English plural lettres could refer to an epistle or written document, reflecting the use of the Latin plural litteræ. Use of the singular letter to refer to a written document emerged in the 14th century.

As symbols that denote segmental speech, letters are associated with phonetics. In a purely phonemic alphabet, a single phoneme is denoted by a single letter, but in history and practice letters often denote more than one phoneme. A pair of letters designating a single phoneme is called a digraph. Examples of digraphs in English include “ch”, “sh” and “th”. A phoneme can also be represented by three letters, called a trigraph.

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