What do we call it when the Initial sound of a word, eg. beth vel sim. "house", is assigned to a symbol of that word, eg. the floorplan of a house(?), to use the sign as the unique representation of the phonemic value, eg. /b/, in a phonetic script like the Phoenician Alphabet (hence Alpha-Beta)?

My googling fails me because, as you can see, I fail at phrasing the question in as few words as possible. All I know is that @Draconis used this word before.

Is it the Rhebus principle?


2 Answers 2


The rebus principle is a bit more general: it's when a logogram for something is extended to represent the phonemes making up the name of that thing in other contexts. For example, the Sumerian word for "mouth" was pronounced ka; when Sumerian scribes started using the "mouth" logogram to mean the sound /ka/ in other contexts that had nothing to do with mouths (e.g. to spell out case markers), that was the rebus principle in action. A modern example would be using the symbol "2" as an abbreviation for "to" or "too".

The acrophonic principle (or acrophony) is related, but involves repurposing a logogram for specifically the first sound of its name. When a Proto-Sinaitic scribe took a hieroglyph of a house (Egyptian pr, Semitic bayt) and used it for the sound /b/, that was acrophony in action.

The term "acrophony" is also sometimes used in the other direction, for naming (inherited or invented) alphabet letters after words. For example, the NATO spelling alphabet (alpha, bravo, charlie…) would be considered acrophonic by this definition.


That's called acrophony or acrophonic principle.

  • If I’m understanding the question correctly (it’s not too clearly worded), this is about a specific subset of acrophony, specifically naming the glyph after the thing it depicts. Ogham and Anglo-Saxons runes have acrophonic names, but the glyphs ailm and do not originate from drawings of fir or livestock, so they would not be examples of what is being asked about. Nov 20, 2021 at 14:21
  • @JanusBahsJacquet - At least two moments point to acrophony as the word in question, 1) the OP doesn't use the word acrophony which would be inevitably used if your interpretation of the question were the same as the OP's; 2) acrophony is really an umbrella term for several similar phenomena, still it does cover the case of the Phoenician alphabet directly mentioned in the question. Also, it's hard to judge what the ancient Irishmen thought the Ogham letters really depicted, maybe for them ailm and were relevant drawings of fir or livestock within their picture of the world.
    – Yellow Sky
    Nov 20, 2021 at 14:51
  • I have no doubt the asker didn’t know the word acrophony, and it does cover the case in the question – but I read the question as being about that specific case, rather than about the broader concept of acrophony. It seems highly doubtful that Ogham names should reflect any real-world resemblance to trees, since the glyphs themselves were adapted from the (probably) Latin script. The origin of northern runes are less clear, but they are undoubtedly based on existing phonetic alphabets with new names, so the same largely applies there. Nov 20, 2021 at 14:57
  • 1
    I didn't mean the Ogham script nor the runes, or I would have said that. Whether Beta was always a house is unknow, but I did take care to choose one for example that may be less controversial. It is effectively irrelevant which was first, symbol or name, if we might instead talk about the concept /b/ for arguments sake, supposing that the shape and interpretation could change as needed, as they obviously did, while it is impossible to say who started it. That's why the word is used in various meanings, obviously? Acrophony is the exact answer I needed (but Draconis' answer is more thorough).
    – vectory
    Nov 21, 2021 at 20:53

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