I'm investigating why the letters 'N' and 'M' look so different – a friend wanted to know. I can trace back to connection to Etruscan but there the trail seems to go cold.

Going back in time, the characters representing 'm' and 'n' maintain their similarity (compare the Etruscan 'N' and 'M'). According to the Wikipedia articles on 'N' and 'M' (neither citing sources) they both come from separate hieroglyphics - 'snake' and 'water' respectively - but this claim has not been verified.

Where do the two letters come from?

Why do the Etruscan characters look so similar?

  • I'm on the iOS app, if anyone can change the Etruscan letters to a manageable size I would be very grateful. Nov 13, 2016 at 18:14
  • This isn't linguistics, but they were probably made to look similar because things like that tend to converge. You know, the Etruscans write N one way, and that bleeds over into the M Nov 13, 2016 at 20:08
  • Even the Wikipedia article you referenced (which is one of the many essentially worthless Wikipedia articles that don't have references) refers to the connection to Egyptian hieroglyphs as speculation. Andrew Robinson, in The Story of Writing (Thames & Hudon, 1992: not a particularly academic book, but one I have to hand) say (p.161) "Subsequent discoveries in Lebanon and Israel .. have shown he Sinaitic theory of the alphabet to be a romantic fiction".
    – Colin Fine
    Nov 13, 2016 at 20:10
  • @ColinFine Do you know the real origin of the symbols then? Nov 13, 2016 at 20:11
  • I don't think anybody does with any certainty. It seems likely that they originate in pictographs used as a rebus, and the letter 'N' may indeed go back to a picture of a snake ('nakhash' in Hebrew), without the Egyptian snake having anything to do with it; but its name in all the Semitic alphabets is 'nun', so it's not clear whether that was the origin.
    – Colin Fine
    Nov 13, 2016 at 20:18

1 Answer 1


Assuming for the sake of discussion that there was a proto-Sinaitic writing system that had symbols representing a word for "water" whose first phoneme was "m" and the symbol something waterish like this; and likewise something snake-like looking like this; then the transition to Phoenician it pretty simple, and the distance from Egyptian hieroglyphs is also less: in the Proto-Sinaitic "m" is basically the same as Egyptian "water", but with fewer zigs, and that's a reasonable simplification.

I would not say that Latin "M" and "N" look particularly different. It doesn't seem to be controversial that 𐌌 and 𐌍 were used in various old Italic writing systems and the modern letters M N some from these. The classical Etruscan version with these flipped with the long leg on the right seems to be a minority development, not characteristic of archaic Etruscan or Western Greek scripts. Basically the characters are the same, and what differs is whether you write left-to-right or right-to-left (start with the stick). The Latin and Etruscan characters are similar because they are really similar to Western Greek and the Greek looks like Phoenician (just ignore the flipping of letters as we move between languages). Phoenician 𐤌 and 𐤍 look like the Proto-Sinaitic symbols, which themselves look like Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Admittedly, linguists have mad skills at finding similarities where normal people see differences. My main caveat is that I distrust symbolically-reduced representations of ancient letters: I'd want to see actual photographs or tracings of the inscriptions.

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