Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/B
B is the second symbol of all European alphabets except those derived from the Cyrillic original (see Alphabet, vol. i. p. 613), such as the Russian. In these a modified form, in which only the top of the upper loop appears, stands as the second letter, with the value of the original sound b ; whilst the old symbol B comes third with the phonetic value v or w. In Egypt this letter was originally a hieroglyph for a crane, and afterwards represented also the sound b. The symbol and its phonetic value were borrowed by the Phoenicians, but not its name, as we infer from finding it called in Hebrew beth, i.e., a house. In its oldest known Phoenician form the upper loop only exists in a more or less rounded shape. In different alphabets even the upper loop was gradually opened, so that in the square Hebrew the original form can no longer be detected. The Greeks, when they borrowed it from the Phoenicians, closed up the lower loop as well as the upper for convenience of writing. Sometimes the loops were angular, but more generally they were rounded. There is little variation of the form, except in the old alphabets of Corinth and Corcyra, where the original is hardly recognisable. In old Latin both the rounded and the pointed loops appear.
The original sound which this symbol represented, and which it still represents in most European languages, is a closed labial, i.e., one in which perfect closure of the lips is necessary, the sound being heard as the lips open. Like all closed sounds, it is not capable of prolongation. It differs from p, which is also a closed labial, as a sonant from a surd. A sonant is heard when the breath, as it passes through the glottis, is vocalised by the tension or approximation of its edges. When there is no such action of the glottis, mere breath alone passes through ; but the explosiveness of the breath when the vocal organs are opened produces a sound, and this is called a surd. The vocal organs are in precisely the same position for p as for 6; but in producing p they act upon breath only; in pro ducing b they articulate voice.
In the earliest stage to which we can trace back the language spoken by the forefathers of the Indo-European nations, it cannot be certainly proved that the sound b was ever heard at the beginning of a word. Perhaps in this position it may have been sounded indistinctly as a labial v. In English and all Low German languages p has taken the place of original b, which is preserved in Greek and Latin ; thus the 6 in Ka.wa.f3i>; is replaced by p in English " hemp." We do not certainly know the reason of this shifting of sound, which affects all momentary sounds, and which is commonly known in England by the name of " Grimm s law." By the same law English b has taken the place of original Ih. Thus our "beech" stands for original "bhaga," which is represented, according to the phonetic laws of the languages, by Greek <j>rjy6<; and Latin " fagus." In the middle of a Latin word, and con sequently generally in the languages derived from the Latin, b represents original bh.
There is a tendency among some peoples to allow the b sound to pass into a v, in which the lips are not firmly closed, and so the sound is capable of prolongation, because it does not consist (as b proper does) in the momentary escape of the voice after the lips have been compressed and then opened. This v, in the production of which the lips alone are concerned, must be carefully distinguished from our English v, which is the result of pressure between the upper teeth and lower lip ; it is more like our English w. It is the sound which has taken tho place of b in modern Greek. The same confusion is found in Latin inscriptions of the 3d and 4th centuries after Christ, when the symbol v represents original b ; thus sivi stands for sibi, livido for libido (see Corssen, Auss^yrache, &c., i. 131) ; and still more frequently b appears for v, as bixit for vixit. The change would be inconceivable if the symbol v in these cases had had the same sound as with us, that of a labiodental. The same indistinctness appeared locally in dialects, as is shown by Martial s well-known epigram—
“Hand temere antiquas mutat Vasconia voces,
Cui nil est aliud vivere quam bibere.”