I have noticed that the Spanish alphabet has the 26 letters + the consonant ñ, which is pronounced like the "ny" in "canyón". But out of the remaining 26 letters, I have noticed that the consonants have different names from the names in English. Why can't all the 26 letters be given universal names for all the Latin script languages?

  • This has been migrated from spanish.stackexchange.com/questions/34715/…? – Arunabh Bhattacharya May 13 '20 at 17:12
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    If you think about it, it makes just as much sense for Spanish to have different names for its letters as it does for Spanish to have different words for paper and pencil. We naturally expect words in one language to be different from words in another, and the names of the letters are words in the languages they write. Though most European languages would use the same names for their cardinal vowels - a, e, i, o, u. All the European languages except English pronounce them and name them the same: ah, eh, ee, o, oo. But English changed the sounds and thus the names: eh, ee, eye, o, you. – jlawler May 13 '20 at 19:07
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    Er… the letters nearly all have the same names in Spanish as in English (with minor differences, but that’s just because they’re different languages). Jay/jota, v/uve and double-u/doble uve are the only ones that have any real difference; the rest are essentially the same, just pronounced according to the phonemes of either language. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 13 '20 at 19:17
  • Apparently, if I tell Siri or Cortana the sound used by "ay" in "day", it is interpreted as the letter "e". – Arunabh Bhattacharya May 15 '20 at 22:40

Why can't all the 26 letters be given universal names for all the Latin languages?

They used to, in fact! Well…mostly.

Back in the days of the Roman empire, there were mostly consistent names for the letters of the alphabet: ā, bē, cē, dē, ē and so on. There was a bit of variation in some of them, like ef versus effe, versus ȳ-graeca, and ex versus ix, but for the most part they were consistent.

But languages change over time. At one point, for example, English shifted all of its "long E" sounds from IPA /e:/ (as in café) to IPA /i:/ (as in machine). And this affected the letter names they'd borrowed from Latin: that's how we got "bee, dee, ee, gee" versus Spanish be, de, e, ge, etc.

Other differences might have originated from variations within Latin, such as the ef versus effe mentioned by Roman grammarians. Some letters didn't exist within Latin, such as W, Ñ, and J, so those were given names later. The letter Z was renamed in American English, by analogy with C, D, E, and so on. But most of the differences can be traced back to English changing all its long vowels somewhere around the fifteenth century, a process called the "Great Vowel Shift".


The main reason is that it would be impossible to agree on a name. Is "z" to be called "tset", "zed", "zee", "zeta" and so on? What about the letters that are not used in English – what do we call ç?

We have different names for letters because names for letters developed long ago from different sources. The Latin name for "z" is based on the Greek name which is based on the Semitic name; the letter "f" derives from a Semitic letter for [w], called waw. Here is an account of the Latin letter names, which explains much about current names.

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    is zeta based on the semitic name? The Hebrew is zayin, with Aramaic and Arabic agreeing on zayn (likely also the pronunciation in early Hebrew before the áy > áyi change). The t appears to be a Greek innovation, presumably by analogy to beta, zeta, eta, theta, and iota – Tristan May 14 '20 at 8:42
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    I believe you are right, @Tristan. – Colin Fine May 14 '20 at 11:21
  • @Tristan yep, similarly, Alpha comes from Aleph, Beta from Beth, Gamma from Gimel, Iota from Yod, Lambda from Lamed, etc. – Robert Columbia Sep 2 '20 at 17:00

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