Reddit user MTC36 made a seemingly simple, straight-forward inquiry: Why is the lowercase ‘a’ we type different to the ‘α’ I write by hand? The ELI5 response? Because. It just happened.
It’s an unsatisfying answer, especially when movies and TV shows have programmed us to believe that whether it’s why Indiana Jones wears a fedora or how C3-PO was built, everything happens because of Important Reasons. (Life’s events are never, as the late-20th century philosopher Homer Simpson pointed out, “just a bunch of stuff that happened.”)
Ultimately, there is no singular, inciting event or decision, no defining secret origin that created two commonly accepted forms of the lowercase letter “a”—”a” and “α.” The forms developed along with the printed word, as manuscripts, books and other documents moved from being handwritten to being produced mechanically. All that happened over the slow march of time.
Thankfully, Reddit user F0sh provides more details as to the gradual evolution of how we write the letter:
“The TL;DR is that it’s basically a historical accident: There were loads of variations of the letter ‘a’ and one became standard in printing while a less fancy one became standard in handwriting, presumably because people are lazy when they have to do things by hand. …
So, there were actually many different ways of writing the letter if you go back around 1500 years ago. This is actually not that uncommon—if you think about other letters like ‘g’ that today have variants, or you might have heard of the old english letter thorn (þ) coming to be written like a ‘y’ (hence ‘ye olde shoppe’).
Anyway, after a while there were two main variants, one which was like the handwritten a, and one which was similar, but where the upright line on the right is diagonal, and extends above the loop. This bit that stretches up will eventually become the bit that loops over and left that we see now on our computer screens. These two characters also make clear the connection with the modern upper case A – there is a form between the two, formed of two diagonal lines (like an A) and a connecting stroke at the bottom.”And for those who can’t get enough about glyphs, user callius picks up where F0sh left off and gets even more granular in his explanation:
It’s also important to point out that these different ways of writing A were not in “direct competition” with one another, scribally speaking. They worked in unison and performed different functions, depending on the script being used, the type of document being produced, the hierarchy of each part of the document (headings were fancier, the names and titles of kings and bishops slightly less so, and the main text of the document even less so).So there you go. Why are there two acceptable ways to write the lowercase “a”?
You can see the multiplicity of As in this document from 13th century England.
Because that’s just how it turned out after centuries of people writing. And isn’t that ambiguity better than using midi-chlorians to explain anything?