Volume - 9 : Issue - 1

Published : Jan. - Mar. 2010

Group : Language


Back to the List



The Latin alphabet, also called the Roman alphabet, is the most widely used alphabetic writing system in the world today. It evolved from the western variety of the Greek alphabet called the Cumaean alphabet, which was borrowed and modified by the Etruscans who ruled early Rome, whose alphabet was then adapted and further modified by the ancient Romans to write the Latin language.

During the Middle Ages, it was adapted to the Romance languages, the direct descendants of Latin, as well as to the Celtic, Germanic, Baltic, and some Slavic languages, and finally to most of the languages of Europe.

With the age of colonialism and Christian evangelism, the Latin alphabet was spread overseas, and applied to Indigenous American, Indigenous Australian, Austronesian, East Asian, and African languages. More recently, western linguists have also tended to prefer the Latin alphabet or the International Phonetic Alphabet (itself largely based on the Latin alphabet) when transcribing or creating written standards for non-European languages, such as the African reference alphabet.

In modern usage, the term Latin alphabet is used for any direct derivation of the alphabet first used to write Latin. These variants may discard letters from the classical Roman script (like the Rotokas alphabet) or add new characters to it, as from the Danish and Norwegian alphabet. Letter shapes have changed over the centuries, including the creation of entirely new lower case characters.


The Latin alphabet spread, along with the Latin language, from the Italian Peninsula to the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea with the expansion of the Roman Empire. The eastern half of the Empire, including Greece, Asia Minor, the Levant, and Egypt, continued to use Greek as a lingua franca, but Latin was widely spoken in the western half, and as the western Romance languages evolved out of Latin, they continued to use and adapt the Latin alphabet.

With the spread of Western Christianity during the Middle Ages, the alphabet was gradually adopted by the peoples of northern Europe who spoke Celtic languages (displacing the Ogham alphabet) or Germanic languages (displacing earlier Runic alphabets), Baltic languages, as well as by the speakers of several Finno-Ugric languages, most notably Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian. The alphabet also came into use for writing the West Slavic languages and several South Slavic languages, as the people who spoke them adopted Roman Catholicism. The speakers of East Slavic languages generally adopted the Cyrillic alphabet along with Orthodox Christianity, despite that Latin alphabet has been actively used in Belarus in late Middle Ages and that there has always been a significant Roman Catholic minority in the country. The Serbian language uses both alphabets, with Latin being the predominant alphabet in the province of Vojvodina.

As late as 1492, the Latin alphabet was limited primarily to the languages spoken in Western, Northern, and Central Europe. The Orthodox Christian Slavs of Eastern and Southeastern Europe mostly used the Cyrillic alphabet, and the Greek alphabet was in use by Greek-speakers around the eastern Mediterranean. The Arabic alphabet was widespread within Islam, both among Arabs and non-Arab nations like the Iranians, Indonesians, Malays, and Turkic peoples. Most of the rest of Asia used a variety of Brahmic alphabets or the Chinese script.

Over the past 500 years, the Latin alphabet has spread around the world, to the Americas, Oceania, and parts of Asia, Africa, and the Pacific with European colonization, along with the Spanish, Portuguese, English, French, Swedish and Dutch languages. The Latin alphabet is also used for many Austronesian languages, including Tagalog and the other languages of the Philippines, and the official Malaysian and Indonesian languages, replacing earlier Arabic and indigenous Brahmic alphabets. Some glyph forms from the Latin alphabet served as the basis for the forms of the symbols in the Cherokee syllabary developed by Sequoyah; however, the sounds of the final syllabary were completely different. L. L. Zamenhof used the Latin alphabet as the basis for the alphabet of Esperanto. And the Latin alphabet was chosen for the Ido language due to its unquestionable international predominance of a global alphabet in most of the world's population.
In the late nineteenth century, the Romanians adopted the Latin alphabet, primarily because Romanian is a Romance language. The Romanians were predominantly Orthodox Christians, and their Church had promoted the Cyrillic alphabet prior to that.

Under French rule and Portuguese missionary influence, the Latin alphabet was adapted for writing the Vietnamese language, which had previously used Chinese-like characters.

In 1928, as part of Kemal Atatürk's reforms, Turkey adopted the Latin alphabet for the Turkish language, replacing the Arabic alphabet. Most of Turkic-speaking peoples of the former USSR, including Tartars, Bashkirs, Azeri, Kazakh, Kyrgyz and others, used the Latin-based Uniform Turkic alphabet in the 1930s, but in the 1940s all those alphabets were replaced by Cyrillic. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, several of the newly-independent Turkic-speaking republics, namely Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan, as well as Romanian-speaking Moldova, have officially adopted the Latin alphabet for Azeri, Uzbek, Turkmen, Kazakh, Tatar, and Romanian respectively. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and the breakaway region of Transnistria kept the Cyrillic alphabet, chiefly due to their close ties with Russia. In the same periods during the 1930s and 1940s, the majority of Kurds throughout the Kurdistan region replaced their use of the Arabic alphabet for writing in the Kurdish language by adopting two forms of the Latin alphabet.

Although today the only official Kurdish government located in Iraq uses the Arabic alphabet for public documents, the Latin alphabet remains widely used throughout the region by the majority of Kurdish-speakers.