We’ve explored the meaning behind the “X” in Xmas, Xbox, and even its use in friendly and amorous correspondence (XOXO). Now it’s time to take a closer look at the origin of this multi-functional, twenty-fourth letter of the English alphabet. With its long, ambiguous history and multiple phonemes, the letter “X” is quite a dark horse.
Since its inception, the letter “X” has struggled to establish its own identity, so it may be no coincidence that /x/ is commonly used to represent the unknown in both language and mathematics. “X” is derived from the Phoenician letter samekh, meaning “fish.” Originally used by the Phoenicians to represent the /s/ consonant (denoting a hard “s” sound), the Greeks borrowed the samekh around 900 BC and named it “Chi.”
The ancient Greeks utilized their newly acquired phonological element to simplify the digraph (a pair of letters representing a single speech sound) /ks/ – used most prominently throughout the western regions of Greece. The Romans later adopted the ‘x’ sound from the Chalcidian alphabet, a non-Ionic Greek alphabet, and borrowed the ‘Chi’ symbol, consisting of two diagonally crossed strokes, from the Greek alphabet to denote the letter /x/ as well as to identify the Roman numeral X or “10.” So to sum up: The Romans took the /x/ sound from one alphabet (Chalcidian) and combined it with the ‘Chi’ symbol from another alphabet (Greek) and thus X was born.
Like many letters in the English language, such as “C” and “J,” X is a bit of a phonetic chameleon. For instance, /x/ is used to establish the /ks/ sound, as in wax and fox — referred to as a “voiceless velar fricative” – the articulation of a sound made by placing the back of the tongue at the soft palate. The same rule applies for x’s /gz/ sound, as in “auxiliary” and “exhaust.” X can also take on the /z/ sound as in “xylophone” and “Xanadu”, the hard /k/ sound as in “excite”, and /kzh/ as in “luxury”. The /x/ can also be silent as in “Sioux (Falls)”, and the French loan-word “faux”.
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