View Full Version : The Letter S

Aesop Chi Odi
02-23-2010, 07:32 PM

Short simple and sweet. I ran across this article shortly after dinner when I was researching the letter S. You see I ate Salmon and Shrimp with the Spicy Cocktail sauce and all that. A lot of of S going on, got me thinking about the frequency at which the letter might be used. It might be the most commonly used letter for the initial position of the word in the english language.

Or the most commonly used suffix. But who knows. Im out though my friend rented summer of sam by spike lee. I heard its a must see.


Any way you look at it, the S is a complicated letter. Not only is it one of the more challenging characters to draw, but the story of its evolution has more twists, turns, and reverses than its shape.
The serpentine saga of our 19th letter gets its first false start with the early Egyptians and their hieroglyph for the ‘s’ sound, which was a drawing of a sword. Later, in the Egyptians’ hieratic writing, the sword was simplified until it looked more like a short piece of barbed wire than a weapon of war. When the Phoenicians built their alphabet on the Egyptian model, they rotated the piece of barbed wire 90 degrees and called it “sameth,” which meant a post. The Greeks adopted this letter but not as a true ‘s’ sound. Consider this a major reversal in the evolutionary road.
At the same time that the Egyptians were using the symbol of a sword to represent the ‘s’ sound, they also used a drawing that represented a field of land to represent the ‘sh’ sound. Like other hieroglyphs, the field symbol was simplified during the transition to hieratic writing. But unfortunately for the Egyptian scribes, the symbol’s usage became more complex. The reason? The Egyptians allowed as many as nine different versions of the symbol to exist at the same time. There were so many, in fact, that one wonders how they kept track.
The Phoenicians dropped most of these Egyptian ‘sh’ characters and settled on something that looked like our W to represent the ‘sh’ sound in their language (the symbol, aptly, represented teeth). The Phoenicians called their version of the letter “shin” or “sin.”
The Greeks borrowed the shin from the Phoenicians but drew it with three, four, and sometimes even five strokes. In some cases it hardly resembled the original Phoenician symbol, but in each the basic zigzag shape of the letter was maintained. In its final Greek form the character became the sigma, which resembles our present capital M lying on its side.
The Romans used a form of the sigma, which omitted the lower horizontal stroke of the character and made it look a little like a backward Z. Over time, the Romans changed the sharp angles of the sigma into softer, rounded forms and finalized the letter into its current graceful shape.
Does the story of the S end here, with the ancient Romans? Not quite; there are still a few twists and turns left. In English manuscripts of the 17th century, a lowercase version of the letter was modified to look remarkably like our lowercase f and stood for the long ‘s’ sound. Even today, the German language uses a letter which resembles a capital B (probably made up of a long and a short s), to represent the double lowercase s in words like “Strasse” and “weiss.”

02-23-2010, 11:54 PM
You might be interested in Et Cetera Et Cetera : Notes of a Word Watcher by Lewis Thomas. He talks about the origin of words and funny things that have become part of the English language. Also by him is The Medusa and the Snail : More Notes of a Biology Watcher.

Uncle Steezo
02-24-2010, 07:08 AM
this is dope.
one thing that constantly stick out in my mind is a line from the movie dune.
"Some thoughts have a certain sound, that being the equivalent to a form."

which reminded me that when language was created, sound was a direct reflection of the emotion, sensation or idea.

as language moved from place to place, the sound became detached from its originial thought.

i think the original tongues prolly had other information interwoven into it since the sound(vibration) of the word itself evoked emotions sensations or ideas.

this is reflected in multidimensional writing such as the glyphs and chinese. a single character can communicate a sound, an idea and a chunk of other information that is compressed into the strokes geometry and composition of that character.

02-24-2010, 07:42 PM
I've read a few times that there are some experts that believe the catalyst to spark spoken language may have been a result of prehistoric man consuming a psychoactive plant while foraging. I haven't looked into it myself so I can't say for sure but it's interesting to think about none the less.

Uncle Steezo
02-25-2010, 01:33 AM
yeah i've heard that too.
the theory is that, as you prolly know 1st hand, that senses combine and flipflop during a trip. this allowed prehistoric man to see sound and hear images. which is what verbal communication is. i tell you something and you see it in your mind.

peep the pharmacratic inquisition video (http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=825942553983229569&ei=zBURS7HlE8L5lAfH6qSuDg&q=pharmacratic+inquisition&hl=en&view=2&client=firefox-a#)
all about psychedelic shrooms and their influence on culture and development.

Edgar Erebus
02-25-2010, 04:47 AM
^^ Interesting thought. Next time I buy a parrot I'll make sure to mix some cid in its birdie num num and see what's gonna happen.