Voracious V

Published 18th November 2011
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Voracious V

V is one of the youngest letters of our alphabet. It shares this distinction with J. The letter was only fully accepted into the alphabet in the mid-19th century. It did appear in print prior to this however, but was seen more as the consonantal variation of U rather than a letter in its own right. V was born from a need to represent new sounds that were forming in the Romance languages after the fall of the Roman Empire (A.D. 500).

Thank the romans!

The Romans managed just fine though with 23 letters…but, was there not a Roman V? Does the goddess Venus ring any bells? Vesuvius? Is Julius Caesar not famous for his utterance, ‘veni, vidi, vici’ (I came, I saw, I conquered)? In fact, the Roman letter V used in those examples was actually a U. Written as V, and pronounced like ‘w’….blimey!

The sounds for ‘f’ and ‘v’ are as close as two consonants can be. Say them to yourself. They are classed as dento-labial fricatives and involve air being pushed through the barrier that resting your front teeth on your lower lip creates. The difference is that ‘v’ involves the use of the vocal chords while ‘f’ does not. In Old English, the letter F was used for both letters.

In medieval writing there was a tug of war between the two letters U and V. A written U could signify the sound ‘u’ or ‘v’, and vice versa. By 1400 however, they had begun to settle their differences occupying the space at the beginning of a word and U at other positions. Late medieval English manuscripts show spellings like ‘vpon’, ‘vse’ and ‘victorie’, ‘loue’ and ‘ouer’.

V had to wait until the mid 1800s before it was officially inaugurated into our alphabet. Thomas Dyche’s Guide to the English Tongue included V in 1707. However Samuel Johnson’s landmark dictionary in 1755 left it out and so held off V’s arrival for another 75 years.


The most famous V of all the Vs has to be Winston Churchill’s Victory hand sign. It was a powerful, inspiring symbol, however perhaps not as powerful as was thought by some; it had been theorized that the entire Allied effort was being driven by cosmic energy channeled down through the letter’s shape!

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