Have you ever wondered where the letter B came from? Most scholars will tell you that it came from the Semitic letter known as beth. They will also tell you that the Semitic letter’s name derived from the Semitic word bayt, meaning “house” and that the shape of the original letter was inspired by an Egyptian hieroglyph for a house. They will then tell you that the letter was adopted by the Ancient Greeks, who called it beta, and that the Greeks, after restyling the letter to their liking, passed the letter on to the Romans who passed it on to the English, and that somewhere along the way the name of the letter was conveniently shortened to simply bee.
I suspect most would accept the traditional explanation as being fairly reasonable and feel that there isn’t any good reason to question it. But I would strongly disagree. That is because I have been doing a lot of research related to the Latin, Greek and Semitic alphabets over the past few years, and what I have discovered is that the story of the letter B actually appears to be far more complicated, fascinating and compelling than what scholars have long asserted.
What you are about to learn is something that will likely ruffle a lot of feathers in the world of academia. Without doubt, there will be some who will respond to what I have to say with a knee-jerk reaction. But those with calmer dispositions, I hope, will eventually come to see the truth in what I am about to share with you. And, in discovering the truth, we will all be better off for it.
So let’s begin…
The Greek name Beta did not derive from the Semitic word bayt; rather it appears that it was the other way around. The Greek name for the letter is actually a different pronunciation for another Greek word, pedia. The Greek word pedia, or originally peda, means “child”. It is cognate with a number of other words for “child”, “boy” or “girl” (e.g., Telugu bidda, Hindi beti/beta, Hebrew bet/ben, Irish paiste, Scottish Gaelic paisde, Arabic fataa and Aromanian feata).
While the Aramaic word bayta clearly does mean “house”, it did not always necessarily refer to the physical structure. The word was also used as a reference to the descendents of a common patriarch, just as “the house of David” in English is understood to refer to the descendents of David. Clearly, the word bayta eventually came to be a reference to the physical structure, but that would appear to have been because, over time, the word began to be understood to be a reference to one’s family estate rather than one’s family patriarch.
Now, as thought-provoking as that claim may be, the story of the letter B does not end there. As it turns out, its story is intimately connected to the story of another letter: the letter P.
The Semitic name for the letter P is pe, meaning “mouth”. Those studying Egyptian mythology might be interested to know that the Semitic word pe is related to an ancient mummification ritual that was known as “the opening of the mouth”, and which was associated with a god known as Ptah, whose name is essentially the same as the Hebrew word for “open”, patakh (compare Arabic fatah). Note that if you say the name Ptah slowly enough, you may come to realize that you are essentially saying “beta”. In other words, not only do the letters P and B look and sound like each other, they also share an ancient Egyptian connection.
But what is going on here? The Greek name of the letter B is actually the name of an Egyptian god whose name somehow came to mean “offspring”?
As weird as all that might sound, this tale actually gets even weirder. You see, ever since 4000 BCE or so, the residents of England have been doing something called coppicing. Today, I suspect, very few people have any idea what coppicing is. Even fewer have any inkling as to what coppicing has to do with the letter B or P. But, fortunately for you, I am here to explain it all.
Admittedly coppicing sounds like something you probably do not want to be caught doing in public. But I can assure you that it does not refer to anything unseemly. In actuality, coppicing merely refers to a method for harvesting wood from a tree so as to not kill the tree.
After a tree trunk reaches a certain diameter, the tree trunk is cut and the wood of the tree is harvested for use. If the remaining stump or stool is then coppiced properly thereafter, the tree continues to live and new tree stems or shoots eventually sprout from the stump or stumps of the original tree. Performed correctly, coppicing allows wood to be harvested from the same tree over and over again, sometimes for hundreds of years.
The time between harvests varies depending largely on the specie of the tree. Oak, for example, may take half a century of growth before it can be harvested for use. In contrast, birch trees can be harvested every 3 to 4 years.
So what, you may ask, does coppicing have to do with the letter B or the letter P? Actually, quite a bit.
In the Germanic lands of ancient Europe, the letters carved by the scribes were known as runes. And one of the runes, which looked and sounded a lot like our letter B, was known as Berkanan, the Germanic word for “birch”. Most scholars believe that the Berkanan rune was inspired by the Greek or Roman letter B. But that conclusion or assumption may, as it turns out, be somewhat in error.
The names Berkanan and birch (cognate to Gothic bairka) are both related to an English word that we are all quite familiar with: birth. The word birth is generally believed to derive from Old Norse birðe. But if one looks very carefully, one will also recognize that the word birth is, in fact, related to Slovene porod (where the d was originally pronounced as th) and Latin parte (where the t was also originally pronounced as a th).
In Athens, Greece there is a famous temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena that sits on top of the hill known as the Acropolis. The temple is called the Parthenon. The name of the temple is believed to derive from an epithet given to the goddess Athena: parthena, which in modern Greek means “virgin”. But the word parthena actually appears to have derived originally from parthe ne, where parthe is the same as Latin parte, meaning “birth” and ne essentially means “not out of”. While some might interpret “birth, not out of” to mean “virgin”, I suspect that the original meaning was probably “unborn” and that it referred to the perpetual existence of a force of nature or other phenomena.
At this point I should take a moment to mention the Irish word for “birch”. The Irish word for “birch” is beithe. And again, if one says “beithe” right, one should recognize that beithe is essentially the same as beta, the Greek name for the letter B. One should also note that three years-the amount of time it takes for coppiced birch trees to be ready to be harvested again-is about the same time it takes for a woman to have a second child.
If one opens one’s eyes long enough, one should hopefully also be able to recognize that the uppercase letter B appears to be a pictograph of the torso of a pregnant woman. Could that be pure coincidence? Perhaps; but I strongly doubt it.
So what then, you might be wondering, does birth and offspring have to do with the ancient Egyptian “opening of the mouth” ceremony connected with the god known as Ptah? The answer is that Ptah’s ceremony was specifically intended to release the person’s spirit from their dead body so that it could enter the afterlife.
Do you get the picture now? If not, let me spell it out for you. For those living in ancient times, birth and death were seen as similar events. In one case, one was entering this world; in the other case, one was entering the next. Existence, in their eyes, was a continual cycle of births and rebirths, something that the coppicing of birch trees also represented to them.
Now scholars today will tell you that the letter B has no symbolic meaning, that the letter simply represents a particular sound. But hopefully it should be obvious to you by now that the ancient people throughout Europe, the Middle East and Egypt all thought differently. They universally saw the letter B as representing the meaning “birth” and “offspring”, whether the offspring was that of a human or that of a plant.
[Hebrew scholars have also long noted that the Torah begins with a beth. They see the three-sided beth as symbolizing the fact that the rest of the Torah represents an emanation from God. Clearly, “opening the mouth” is necessary before one can speak, so I cannot help but perceive a deep connection exists between the idea of speech and the letter B. So for me, the Torah scholars clearly appear to have been on to something.]
The letters B and P however did in fact have other meanings besides “offspring” and “opening”. For example, they also had the meanings “extension”, “stalk”, “surface above” and “curved surface”. Note, though, that I did not deduce any of the meanings they possessed from the remarkable history of the letters I just hinted at. Rather, I originally deduced their meanings by carefully studying English and foreign words that incorporate the letters B and P. I only began to be able to better understand the origin of the letters by having first understood their symbolic meanings.
But while what I have just presented concerning the letters P and B may seem rather remarkable, the most remarkable thing that I have discovered is that, despite what scholars might tell you, all of the other letters of the alphabet reflect distinct meanings, too, just like the letters P and B. And those meanings, if you look hard enough, are reflected in virtually every word you speak.
In future articles I hope to be able to share with you some of their stories as well.