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A is the first letter and a vowel in the ISO basic Latin alphabet. It is similar to the Ancient Greek letter Alpha, from which it derives.
The earliest certain ancestor of "A" is aleph, the first letter of the Phoenician alphabet. In turn, the origin of aleph may have been a pictogram of an ox head in Egyptian hieroglyphs.
In 1600 B.C., the Phoenician alphabet's letter had a linear form that served as the base for some later forms. Its name must have corresponded closely to the Hebrew or Arabic aleph.
When the ancient Greeks adopted the alphabet, they had no use for the glottal stop—the first phoneme of the Phoenician pronunciation of the letter, and the sound that the letter denoted in Phoenician and other Semitic languages—so they used an adaptation of the sign to represent the vowel /a/, and gave it the similar name of alpha. In the earliest Greek inscriptions after the Greek Dark Ages, dating to the 8th century BC, the letter rests upon its side, but in the Greek alphabet of later times it generally resembles the modern capital letter, although many local varieties can be distinguished by the shortening of one leg, or by the angle at which the cross line is set.
The Etruscans brought the Greek alphabet to their civilization in the Italian Peninsula and left the letter unchanged. The Romans later adopted the Etruscan alphabet to write the Latin language, and the resulting letter was preserved in the Latin alphabet used to write many languages, including English.
The letter has two minuscule (lower-case) forms. The form used in most current handwriting consists of a circle and vertical stroke, called Latin alpha or "script a". This slowly developed from the fifth-century form resembling the Greek letter tau in the hands of dark-age Irish and English writers. Most printed material uses a form consisting of a small loop with an arc over it. Both derive from the majuscule (capital) form. In Greek handwriting, it was common to join the left leg and horizontal stroke into a single loop. Many fonts then made the right leg vertical. In some of these, the serif that began the right leg stroke developed into an arc, resulting in the printed form, while in others it was dropped, resulting in the modern handwritten form.
In English, the letter A currently represents six different vowel sounds: A by itself frequently denotes the near-open front unrounded vowel (/æ/) as in pad; the open back unrounded vowel (/ɑː/) as in father, its original, Latin and Greek, sound; a closer, further fronted sound as in "hare", which developed as the sound progressed from "father" to "ace"; in concert with a later orthographic vowel, the diphthong /eɪ/ as in ace and major, due to effects of the great vowel shift; the more rounded form in "water" or its closely related cousin, found in "was".
"A" is the third most commonly used letter in English, and the second most common in Spanish and French. In one study, on average, about 3.68% of letters used in English tend to be ⟨a⟩, while the number is 6.22% in Spanish and 3.95% in French.
"A" is often used to denote something or someone of a better or more prestigious quality or status: A-, A or A+, the best grade that can be
by teachers for students' schoolwork; A grade for clean restaurants; A-List celebrities, etc. Such
can have a motivating effect as exposure to the letter A has been found to improve performance, when compared with other letters.
The letter "a" is also a common prefix meaning "without"; for example in atheist or asexual.
In most languages that use the Latin alphabet, A denotes an open unrounded vowel: /a/, /ä/, or /ɑ/. An exception is Saanich, in which A (and Á) stand for a close-mid front unrounded vowel /e/. In the International Phonetic Alphabet, variants of A denote various vowels. In X-SAMPA, capital A denotes the open back unrounded vowel and lowercase a denotes the open front unrounded vowel.
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