Lost Letters - An Alphabetic Story


The alphabet is something we learn as small children, the first step toward teaching us how to read (itself the first step in teaching us how to fritter away time reading articles about cats). There are only twenty-six letters, but those twenty-six can be put together to make every word in our language. But how did we wind up with these twenty-six? Why does English have the alphabet it does?

The answer begins with the Christianization of England, beginning in the 6th century. Christianity introduced the Latin alphabet, the ancestor of the modern English alphabet. What did English use before the Latin alphabet? Runes. Carved in metal and stone.

Lost Letters - An Alphabetic Story

This was the alphabet for Old English once upon a time. All but the last five of these runes are present in the Old English Rune Poem, while these last occur occasionally in other runic texts such as the Bewcastle Cross.

You probably know the runes best from reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, where Tolkien uses the runes as the basis for his Dwarvish script. Thror's map in the Hobbit is littered with stylized runes telling, for instance, how to find the secret entrance to the Lonely Mountain.

Now, when Christianity came, the Latin alphabet became the script of literacy and learning, and the runes found themselves limited in use. But the Latin alphabet didn't simply replace the English runes; it was also altered for use in England. The Latin alphabet as it came to England consisted of the following letters: a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, j, k, l, m, n, o, p, q, r, s, t, u, v, x, y, z. Note that k served pretty much only as a variant of c and z only existed in a handful of words during the Old English period. Also, j and v were simply different ways of writing i and u. W had not been invented yet.

Well, that doesn't look that different. Four letters basically not used, and one not invented. Sounds like a pretty boring story.

It would be, if English were content to just take and not innovate a little.

What English brought to the table

England, however, was not content with Latin's letterstock. It added the following letters and symbols to this inventory: þ (thorn), ƿ (wynn), ð (eth), æ (ash), œ (ethel), the Tironian et, and thorn with stroke (Unicode for these symbols is sadly not supported by Kinja). The first two of these letters were imported directly from the runes: Thorn gave a letter to the sound represented by the letters th, and Wynn made the same sound as modern w at the beginning of a word.

Eth and Ash, however, did not derive from the runes. Eth was an alteration of the minuscule d, and in Old English came to be used more or less interchangeably with thorn. Ash was the Latin ligature, imported by and pronounced in English as if it were the rune Ash (indeed, the rune's name tells you exactly how this vowel was pronounced).

Ethel, like k and z, was rarely used and often served in Old English as a variant for ash and based on the sound represented by the rune of the same name. Unlike Wynn and Thorn, it bore no resemblance to its rune, making it more like the letter Ash.

The Tironian et was an abbreviation for and (Old English ond), not unlike the ampersand (which derives from a ligature form of et). It was also occasionally used to stand in for the sound of the word it meant in other words, resulting in cases such as the letter b and a Tironian et standing for the word bond. Given the cost in both time and money that writing took in the Middle Ages, abbreviations like this were viewed as efficient, rather than affronts to the language as many would suggest if I were to write b& in a sentence pretty much anywhere.

Thorn with stroke was another abbreviation, in this case for the word þæt (that, the - Old English didn't have definite articles, only demonstrative adjectives). It survived with Thorn for quite a while before print technology helped kill them both.

Now, additional letters are real cool. Imagine how much better English spelling would be if we had a few of these letters hanging around today. It wouldn't be perfect - spelling in English is an ordeal for many reasons, but wouldn't it be nice if we could bring back æ for the vowel in cat? Or how about if we did like Icelandic and preserve Thorn and Eth, and distinguish them: Thorn for the sound in that, Eth for the sound in with. There's a slight difference in those two sounds (the second is voiced), so it'd be nice to make that distinction clear, have a single letter for each of those, and it would also let us make words like butthead without a hyphen to delineate the syllables.

With all of that utility, what happened?

The French. And then Gutenberg.

In 1066 the Normans invaded England and William the Conqueror took the throne. In addition to marking a rift in numbering the kings and queens of England/The United Kingdom of Great Britain/The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland/The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (the Edwards after 1066, for instance, start with Edward I despite there being a few Edwards before 1066), it also marks the beginning of significant French influence on the English language.

In contrast to its status pre-Conquest, English was not used often in official or literary contexts for about the first century or two after the Conquest. By the time English emerged again as a language used for legal purposes and literary pursuits, Old English was practically unrecognizable.

The letters, however, remained. For a time.

As English gained visibility, the language started to shed some of its more distinctive letters. Wynn (ƿ) was gone by the 14th century, replaced by uu (a digraph which would be come w). The digraph uu was used commonly in Old High German and occurred rarely in early Old English before Wynn was adapted from its rune, but it was among the first letters dropped from the language.

About the same time, Eth (ð) fell out of use as well. Thorn took precedence, which makes sense. It didn't look anything like the letter d, and upon the elimination of Wynn there was no letter which looked remotely similar.

Ethel and Ash began to fall out of use, at least in their original uses, during the Middle English period. A number of words, at least in British English, retain Ash and Ethel for the purposes of marking the etymology of the word. In America English we have tended toward simplification, using a simple e: fetus/fœtus, encyclopedia/encyclopædia.

Speaking of encyclopaedia, those who ever saw How I Met Your Mother and Ted's rationale for pronouncing it the way he does, you now know that his rationale is stupid. The "paedia" part, based on his rationale, would be correctly pronounced "padia" - like pad + ia. If he followed the fact that the word comes from Latin, he'd want something like "pydia/peyedia/piedia" because in Classical Latin the ligature was a diphthong with the same phonetic value as I. I'm not sure if I should give the writers credit for making Ted's douchiness based on an erroneous understanding of, well, everything, or if I should hate the writers for not doing the research.

Mostly, we tend to use those letters nowadays when we're using words from other languages where they still have the status of letter. Even then, they're not always used.

So of all those letters were gone before print happened.

There was another letter, ȝ (yogh), which was a variant of g (the g we use today is descended from the Carolingian g, while yogh was descended from the insular g used in the British Isles. In Old English the two weren't really distinguished, both simply being forms of g. Middle English led to a distinction, though, where g represented a hard g and ȝ a palatalized g (more like a y or at times an initial j, depending on context). It survived into late Middle English, but didn't make it to Modern English. Words like night and ye used to have a yogh (niȝt, ȝe). In the case of ye, the pronoun, the yogh was a continuation of its Old English form: ge. In word-medial and terminal positions, gh is the most common letter combination representing where a yogh used to be.

English lost the Tironian et during the Middle English period as well. It has survived, however, in Irish and Scottish Gaelic, as seen on this sign in Dublin:

Lost Letters - An Alphabetic Story

It's called agus in those languages.

Which leaves Thorn and its stroked variant. What happened to those? They weathered the storm of Francophone influence on the language well enough, lasting far longer than the other letters.

It began when Thorn lost its ascender, the little part that sticks up at the top. This was a change in the later Middle Ages, and it effectively killed the ability to make Thorn with stroke happen.

But Thorn itself pressed on, with the th digraph emerging as a competitor. It wasn't until Gutenberg's printing press made its way to England, however, that the letter was given its deathblow.

One of the things to understand about pre-print English is that spelling reflected the sound of the language. In Old English, spelling generally varied by regional dialect, but it had more or less standardized by the time the Norman Conquest happened. The Conquest brought on a lot of new variety based on the sounds of French. Spelling was still primarily based on sound, though.

Then print happened. With print, someone had to arrange all the letters from the font, set them in the press, and then the page could be printed. The font would have multiples of every letter, with numbers based on the distribution of use each letter had in the language of printing. A page unusually heavy in a letter that did not usually see much use would have to find substitutes producing variations of spelling based on material factors rather than due to the the phonics of the language.

And that's how we begin to lose Thorn. Having lost its ascender, it was often easier to simply use th in its place or replace it with another, similar letter. Thorn, upon losing its ascender, becand to see its loop open, resembling very much the letter y. Thorns came to be replaced with both y and th in print, as manufacturers of fonts found it easier to simply supply more of those letters than to make specialty Thorns for English printers.

Incidentally, the use of y for Thorn in print is where we derive our pseudomedieval idea of "ye olde" from. The "ye" here should be pronounced exactly like the word the. And now you know what's up when you see something like this:

Lost Letters - An Alphabetic Story

It's especially silly given the typeface. Not that you needed any more reasons to find the Ren Faire silly, but now you can add this one to your braincase and remember next time you go.

With the elimination of Thorn, the last contribution to the English alphabet which originated within English was gone. The last link to English's pre-Christian script was gone. I'll leave you to puzzle out what you make of any colonial implications there might be in that.

The only additions to our alphabet since have come from the formalization of variants like j, w, and v as distinct letters in and of themselves. These letters came online as letters in their own right by the 17th century, but had been recognizable forms for much longer. Ampersand has at times found its way into the alphabet, but it too has been left to rot as a special symbol and not a letter.

The long s, another letter variant, was one of the last to die out in English. In text, it can often be mistaken for an f without the stroke. Its use as lowercase s at the beginning or in the middle of words dates back to the 8th century, but it was effectively defunct by the beginning of the 19th century.

The English alphabet has remained relatively stable for nearly four hundred years. While that may be, we may yet see changes in the alphabet in the future. English is penetrating deeper and deeper into the sites of British colonization and beyond.

With no official body holding the power to decide the alphabet and determine what is and is not English like the Real Academia for Spanish or the Academie Francaise for French, there's no telling how English itself may be altered by former colonial subjects. The language itself is different in these locales, but the script has remained the same - but that is not a given. We might see in the future one or more former British colonies decide to reform the English alphabet within their own borders. Or perhaps in regions touched by American culture.

Language isn't static. It's fluid and constantly evolving. Who knows. Perhaps we might even see some of these dead letters make a comeback.

Image credit: British Library

Image credit: Wikipedia

Image credit: Wikipedia

Image credit: Neatorama