E The fifth symbol in the English alphabet occupies also the same position in Phoenician and in the other alphabets descended from Phoenician. As the Semitic alphabet did not represent vowels, E was originally an aspirate. Its earliest form, while writing is still from right to left, is , the upright being continued some distance below the lowest of the cross-strokes. In some of the Greek alphabets it appears as with the upright prolonged at both top and bottom, but it soon took the form with which we are familiar, though in the earlier examples of this form the cross-strokes are not horizontal but drop at an angle, . In Corinth and places under its early influence like Megara, or colonized from it like Corcyra, the symbol for e takes the form or , while at Sicyon in the 6th and 5th centuries B.C. it is represented by . In early Latin it was sometimes represented by two perpendicular strokes of equal length, .
In the earliest Greek inscriptions and always in Latin the symbol represented both the short and the long e-sound. In Greek also it was often used for the close long sound which arose either by contraction of two short e-sounds or by the loss of a consonant, after a short e-sound, as in φιλεῖτε, “you love,” for φιλέετε, and φαεινός, “bright,” out of an earlier φαεσνός. The Ionian Greeks of Asia Minor, who had altogether lost the aspirate, were the first to use the symbol for the long e-sound, and in official documents at Athens down to 403 B.C., when the Greek alphabet as still known was adopted by the state, represented ε, η and the sound arising by contraction or consonant loss as mentioned above which henceforth was written with two symbols, ει, and being really a single sound is known as the “spurious diphthong.” There were some minor distinctions in usage of the symbols and which need not here be given in detail. The ancient Greek name was εἶ, not Epsilon as popularly supposed; the names of the Greek letters are given from Kallias, an earlier contemporary of Euripides, in Athenaeus x. p. 453 d.
In Greek the short e-sound to which was ultimately limited was a close sound inclining more towards i than a; hence the representation of the contraction of εε by ει. Its value in Latin was exactly the opposite, the Latin short e being open, and the long close. In English there has been a gradual narrowing of the long vowels, ā becoming approximately ēi and ē becoming ī (Sweet, History of English Sounds, §§ 781, 817 ff. 2nd ed.). In languages where the diphthong ai has become a monophthong, the resulting sound is some variety of long e. Often the gradual assimilation can be traced through the intermediate stage of ae to ē, as in the Old Latin aidilis, which in classical Latin is aedilis, and in medieval MSS. edilis.
The variety of spelling in English for the long and short e-sounds is conveniently illustrated in Miss Soames’s Introduction to the Study of Phonetics, pp. 16 and 20. (P. Gi.)