LETTER, a character used to express one of the simple sounds of the voice ; and as the different simple sounds are expressed by different letters, these by being differently compounded, become the visible signs or characters of all the mo dulations and mixtures of sounds used to express our ideas in a regular language. Thus, as by the help of speech we ren der our ideas audible, by the assistance of letters we render them visible, and by their help we can wrap up our thoughts, and send them to the most distant parts of the earth, and read the transactions of different ages. As to the first letters, what they were, who first invented them, and among what people they were first in use, there is still room to doubt : Plfilo attributes this great and noble in vention to Abraham ; Josephtis, St. Tre mens, and others, to Enoch ; Bibliander, to Adam ; Eusebius, Clemens Alexandri nus, Cornelius Agrippa, and others, to Moses ; Pomponius Mela, Herodian, Ru fus Festus, Lucan, &Lc. to the Phoe nicians ; St. Cyprian, to Saturn ; Tacitus, to the Egyptians ; some, to the Ethio pians ; and others, to the Chinese : but, with respect to these last, they can never be entitled to this honour, since all their characters are the signs of words formed without the use of letters, which ren ders it impossible to read and write their language without a vast expense of time and trouble ; and absolutely impossible to print it by the help of types, or any other manner but by the engraving, or cutting in wood. See PRINTING.
There have also been various conjec tures about the different kinds of letters used in different languages ; thus, ac cording to Crinitus, Moses invented the Hebrew letters; Abraham, the Syriac and Chaldee ; the Phwnicians, those of At tica, brought into Greece by Cadmus, and from thence into Italy by the Pelasgians ; Nicostrata, the Roman ; Isis, the Egyp tian; and Vulfilas, those of the Goths.
It is probable that the Egyptian hiero glyphics were the first manlier of writing: but whether Cadmus and the Phoenicians learned the use of letters from the. Egyp tians, or from their neighbours of Judea or Samaria, is a question ; for since some of the books of the Old Testament were then written, they are more likely to have given them the hint than the hien glyphics of Egypt. But wheresoever the Phoenicians learned this art, it is gene rally agreed, that Cadmus, the son of Agenor, first brought letters into Greece; whence, in the following ages, they spread over the rest of Europe.
Letters make the first part or elements of grammar ; an assemblage of these com pose syllables and words, and these com pose sentences. The alphabet of every language consists of a number of letters, which ought each to have a different sound, figure, and use. As the difference of articulate sounds was intended to ex press the different ideas of the mind, so one letter was originally intended to sig nify only one sound, and not, as at pre sent, to express sometimes one sound and sometimes another; which practice has brought a great deal of confusion into the languages, and rendered the learning of the modern tongues much more difficult than it would otherwise have been. This
consideration, together with the deficien cy of all the known alphabets, from their wanting some letters to express certain sounds, has occasioned several attempts towards an universal alphabet, to con tain an enumeration of all such single sounds or letters as are used in any lan guage. See ALPHABET, and WRITING, origin of.
Grammarians distinguish letters into vowels, consonants, mutes, liquids, diph thongs, and characteristics. They are also divided into labial, dental, guttural, and palatal, and into capital and small let ters. They are also denominated from the shape and turn of the letters; and in writing are distinguished into different hands, as round-text, German-text, round hand, Italian, &c. and in printing, into roman, italic, and black letter. The term letter, or type, among printers, not only includes the capitals, small capitals, and small letters, but all the points, figures, and other marks, cast and used in print ing; and also the large ornamental letters, cut in wood or metal, which take place of the illumined letters used in manu scripts. The letters used in printing are cast at the ends of small pieces of metal, about three quarters of an inch in length ; and the letters being not in dented, but raised, easily give the im pression, when, after being blacked with a glutinous ink, paper is closely pressed upon it.
A fount ofletters includes small letters, capitals, small capitals, points, figures, spaces, &c. but besides these, they have different kinds of two-lined letters, only books, chapters, &c. See FOUNT. LETTER of attorney, a writing authoris ing another to do any lawful act instead of the party himself, such as to stip and recover debts, to receive rents, seamen's wages, to execute leases, to give livery of seism, &c. In all these cases the authori ty must be strictly pursued, and it is lia ble to be revoked by granting a new let ter of attorney, or by death of either par ty. In cases of seamen, there are certain statute regulations for protecting them from imposition.
Larrans of marque, are extraordinary commissions, granted to captains or mer chants for reprisals, in order to make a re paration for those damages they have sustained, or the goods they have been deprived of by strangers at sea. These appear to be always joined to those of re prise for the reparation of a private inju ry ; but under a declared war the former only are granted.