History of the letter S
The letter S originated with the Semitic letter shin, meaning “teeth” or “sharp”, perhaps inspired by the Egyptian hieroglyph for “tusk”. The symbol for shin looks somewhat like a W, with an upper dot or tittle to distinguish the s-sound from the sh-sound.
The Greeks turned the symbol on its side, to create the letter sigma (Σ, σ) for the s-sound.
Prior to 1500s, the lower-case letter s in Roman print was a “long s” similar to a lower-case f or a tusk. In medieval hand, the words look a little strange to us.
bleff = bless
bleffedneff = blessedness
When printing came into use after the mid-1400s, a rounded s was often placed at the end of words.
blefs = bless
bleffednefs = blessedness
To distinguish between the letters f and long s, the rounded s form that we know today began to be used everywhere, from the mid-1700s to early-1800s.
The long s remained as a symbol for shillings in Britain, although it morphed into a slash.
£6/10 (six pounds, 10 shillings)
Note: This blog post is an excerpt from a book, “English Manual: Letter by Letter,” to be published in 2016.
One thought on “S is for Sharp, Shin, and Sigma”
Very interesting! I’d always wondered now and then about f/s.