Lost Letters: Old English Letters

Lost Letters - Old English LettersIn previous installments of this series, we’ve looked at letters of the alphabet made and lost in the days of ancient Greece and Rome. Now let’s look at some of the Old English Letters that never made it into our modern alphabet.

Anglo-Saxon Innovations

After the Fall of Rome, the Latin Alphabet gradually spread across Western Europe, where it mingled with Germanic Runes. By the time the Anglo Saxons had conquered England, they had added several new letters to their alphabet. These included Ash (Ææ), which represented the /æ/ sound in the word “cat”, and Wynn (Ƿƿ), which was yet another way to write the sound /w/. The Anglo-Saxons also had two ways to write “th”: the runic letter Thorn (Þþ) represented the unvoiced /θ/ sound in the word “thick” and the Latin-derived Eth (Ðð) represented the voiced /ð/ sound in “father”. (At least in theory. Medieval spelling was far from consistent.) Æ, Ð and Þ are still used today in Icelandic, though Ƿ has completely lost out to W, which as the name implies, was originally written either UU or VV.

Letters Lost

Some of these Old English letters would be useful in the modern day. So why did we drop them? Two reasons. Remember that English wasn’t always the linguistic powerhouse it is today. When the Normans conquered England in 1066, they continued to speak French for several centuries. By the time the English noblemen started speaking English, printing presses started to appear. Most of the printing presses — and the little pieces of lead type — were made on the Continent. This meant that English printers had to make due without the native English letters. After a while, the native letters disappeared entirely.

Modern Influence

In a twist of irony, the English alphabet is now influencing other languages. Inventions like typewriters, telegraphs and basic ASCII character sets have made it harder for many languages to use anything but the 26-letter standard. The invention of Unicode characters is changing this, but the historical influence of ASCII remains.

Next week, we’ll look at more modern attempts to reform the alphabet, followed by famous attempts to replace the alphabet altogether.

Steve Lovelace

Steve Lovelace is a writer, photographer and graphic artist. After graduating Michigan State University in 2004, he taught Spanish in Samoa before moving to Dallas, Texas. He blogs every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at http://steve-lovelace.com.

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7 Responses

  1. Jenny says:

    This is a fascinating history! Where did you do your research? It makes me sad I didn’t take any linguistics classes.

  2. I majored in Spanish and took several linguistics classes in college, though most of this information I picked up from Wikipedia. These are the kinds of things I read about in my spare time.

  3. Gary says:

    An interesting thing about eth is that the name comes from Icelandic letter eð, while the Anglo-saxons called it ðæt (that).

  1. February 12, 2014

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  2. February 13, 2014

    […] to add new letters to the alphabet. Then we’ll look at the letters developed and lost in Medieval England, followed by modern attempts to add new letters to the alphabet. Looking back at all of the letters […]

  3. February 8, 2017

    […] The other obvious example is the “Qwerty” keyboard layout. Qwerty’s fight against obsolescence is now legendary. Invented to prevent key-jamming on one specific model of typewriter, Qwerty soon spread to other typewriters, even those that didn’t have the same jamming problem. It then spread to video terminals and personal computers. Despite a challenge from a more logical layout called  the Dvorak Keyboard, Qwerty persisted. Since then, it has made the jump to Blackberry keypads and even on-screen smartphone and tablet keyboards — a system which uses an entirely different set of motions for typing. A decade into the 21st century, Qwerty shows no signs of abating, becoming in some regards the de facto order of the English alphabet. […]

  4. February 16, 2017

    […] columnist John C. Dvorak) set out to update it. He studied the frequency of the letters in the English alphabet and way people held their hands when they typed. Dvorak then rearranged the keyboard according to […]

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