Sunday, 8 May 2016

Lost Letters of the English Alphabet

I spend a lot of time reading old documents. As anyone who has done such will tell you, this is not something which comes easily. Not only is the handwriting often abysmal but these also contain letters we have long since abandoned. This turned my thoughts to wondering where these letters originated and why they fell by the wayside leaving just the 26 letters of the alphabet taught from our very first day in school (and often before).

Our modern alphabet uses the symbols, for that what letters really are, used in Latin. Yet the English language came from the Germanic group, Old English brought here by the Saxons after the Roman Empire abandoned our islands. This early tongue used a runic alphabet, as did the closely related Old Scandinavian who knew the variants as futhark, with the latter name coming from the first six letters of their alphabet.

I have attempted to put these in alphabetical order, using the modern equivalents as a guide. However this proved difficult with several as there are no comparable equivalents, hence this is an approximation of alphabetical order.

Ash is probably familiar to many, it is still pronounced as 'eye'.

Tironian ond is named after the Roman Tiro who invented a shorthand system where 'ond' represented 'and'.

Yogh hardly has a modern equivalent, although perhaps the best way to hear it is in the 'ch' pronunciation as in the name of composer Bach.

Insular G may not be the catchiest of names for a letter, hence perhaps the reason it is sometimes called 'Irish G', it was used as well as yogh until eventually replaced by same.

Eng was invented in 1619 by scribe Alexander Gill and intended to replace the 'ng' at the end of words.

Ethel was a letter, one which should be seen as the 'oe' equal of ash.

Long s will be familiar to us all as the 's' in the middle of words, rarely found at the beginning or end of words. In truth it is not strictly a different letter but simply a different way of writing 's'.

Thorn was replaced by the sound 'th' and pronounced exactly the same. It fell out of use due to its similarity to the 'y'. It is the harder pronunciation of 'th', as in 'this', 'that', 'the' and 'other'.

That is not a word here but a letter. Once used much less than thorn it outlived same and can still be found in churches and religious texts.

Eth is the softer pronunciation of 'th', such as in 'thick' and 'thin'. It fell out of use quite early, replaced by thorn.

Wynn was the equalivalent of the modern 'w'. The 'w' is an odd letter because the way we say the letter is actually wrong - it should be 'double v' and not 'double u'. Even stranger the Latin, from where we get the letter, did not have a 'u' but a 'v', albeit the latter being used as the vowel.

Ampersand is still in use, indeed text messaging has increased its popularity to a point where it is undoubtedly used more often and by more people than ever before. While today we use it as an abbreviation, it was once considered a letter in its own right and even placed at position 27 in the alphabet as recently as the 19th century.

It does strike me that many of these letters would come in extremely useful if they were included in the piles of letters dished out by Rachel Riley on Coundown. It might have helped the chap on the right to win more games.

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