Wednesday, April 25, 2012

V is for Digamma Inversum

[This is the 22nd of my April A-Z Challenge series of posts on Symbols, Glyphs, and Sigils. Each day I'll try to include some material that old-school role-playing gamers will find useful, but I can't guarantee that there won't also just be a few posts filled with weirdness for the sake of weirdness....]

V is for what now?  I'm not cheating here... this post really is about the letter V, but maybe from a bit of an alternate history perspective.

The ancient Roman alphabet was slightly shorter than the 26-letter version that we're celebrating this month.  Specifically, they used the letter we call "V" for both the Vee (consonant) sound and for the "Youuu" (vowel) sound.  You've probably seen inscriptions like AVGVSTVS.  The problem was that there were some Latin words that were ambiguous when spelled this way.  People talk about VOLUIT ("he or she wishes") being indistinguishable from VOLVIT ("he or she tumbles").

Enter the hapless emperor Claudius in the 1st century AD.  He introduced three new letters of the alphabet to fix some perceived problems, and one of them was the digamma inversum shown here.  It was meant to replace the letter V when the consonant sound is to be made.  To ancient Romans who looked up to the Greeks in matters of culture, it was a quasi-borrowing that made some sense; the Greeks had an old F-shaped letter called digamma that was used for this sound (even though they weren't using it much when Claudius was alive).

The problem was that nobody, um, gave a fvck....  There are a few stone inscriptions in Rome that show this odd letter, but after Claudius died, it rapidly fell out of favor.

The lesson, I suppose, is that of Ozymandias... "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair?"  Not forever, bucko.

However, stuff like this can spur the mind into "what if's."  What if these new letters DID remain a part of our modern-day alphabet?  Would Robert Graves' famous book cover look like this?  (Look closely!)  :-)

About a decade ago, I got really into ancient Roman alternate histories.  You know... What if the Roman Empire never fell?  I thought I'd end this post by listing a few of my favorites...
  1. Kirk Mitchell, in his Germanicus trilogy, probably did the most historical homework of the three authors I'm listing here.  One of his "points of departure" (the Romans' defeat in the Teutoburg Forest) is something that historians continue to debate as a key turning point in the Empire's expansion.  Even with all the history, it's an enjoyable, fast-moving read that shows the rise of a troubled emperor and his journeys to the New World and back.
  2. Somtow Sucharitkul's Aquiliad series (Book 1, Book 2, Book 3) is probably the least researched, but the most fun!  Full of howling puns, glaring anachronisms, and in-jokes that only sci-fi fans will get, the characters have stayed with me since I first read parts of Book 1 serialized in the early 1980s.
  3. Robert Silverberg's Roma Eterna was interesting in a bunch of ways, though it's been criticized for its history and its characterization (both a tad shallow).  However, his tie-ins between the changed Roman history and the plight of the Jews were quite poignant.
  4. More alterna-Greek than alterna-Roman is Richard Garfinkle's Celestial Matters, which is best known for its conceit that the Ptolemaic, geocentric universe is actually true, and the "crystal spheres" that surround the fixed Earth can be visited by spacecraft!  I honestly don't remember the historical point of departure, but it may involve the survival of Alexander the Great's empire.  I remember the characters being endearing in a similar way that I came to love the characters of Avatar: The Last Airbender.


  1. You selected an unusual theme. I like the way you presented today's topic. Visiting from A to Z.

  2. Thanks, Wendy. I try to be unusual several times per day! :-)

  3. I often wondered about the use of 'V' instead of 'U' in writing from the early days. Blog on!