The Letters We’ve Lost

How did you learn your alphabet? Everyone has to learn. It’s usually the first step towards learning how to read and write. Like many, my introduction began with Sesame Street and picture books, but the strongest memory I have of learning the alphabet was in Mrs. Phillip’s kindergarten class in 1995. Around her room, she had a group of inflatable alphabet characters similar to these:

Each week, we would focus on a new character, learning all of the sounds and words associated with the letter. Of course, we also sang the Alphabet Song relentlessly until everyone understood that “elemeno” was not, in fact, a single letter.

Our modern English alphabet is based on the original Roman alphabet and uses Latin characters. Which one of these text samples is the easiest for you to read?

  1. 우리는이 가운데 생명과 자유와 행복의 추구가 있는지, 그들이 어떤 양도 할 수없는 권리를 가진 그들의 창조자에 의해 부여되는 것으로, 모든 인간은 평등하게 태어났다는 것을 자명 한 진리를 개최합니다.
  2. Dicimus esse illa, patet quod omnes homines pares creantur, a suo Creatore praediti quibusdam Iuribus inseparabilibus, inter quae vitae, libertatis et Beata persequenda.
  3. Θεωρούμε αυτές τις αλήθειες να είναι αυτονόητο, ότι όλοι οι άνθρωποι δημιουργούνται ίσοι, ότι είναι προικισμένοι από τον Δημιουργό τους με συγκεκριμένα απαραβίαστα Δικαιώματα, μεταξύ αυτών είναι ζωή, η ελευθερία και η επιδίωξη της ευτυχίας.
  4. Мы считаем эти истины самоочевидны, что все люди созданы равными, что они наделены их Творцом определенными неотчуждаемыми правами, к числу которых относятся жизнь, свобода и стремление к счастью.
  5. हम इन के बीच जीवन, स्वाधीनता और खुशी का पीछा कर रहे हैं कि, वे कुछ अहस्तांतरणीय अधिकार के साथ अपने निर्माता द्वारा संपन्न हो कि, सभी पुरुषों के समान बनाया जाता है, स्वयं स्पष्ट होना करने के लिए इन सत्य पकड़.

Unless you’re fluent in Korean, Russian, Greek, or Hindi, you probably picked number 2 (Latin). You can probably attempt to sound out the Latin, but can’t even begin to try to pronounce the others. That’s because the modern English alphabet uses Latin characters. The other languages don’t. Around 100 languages today use the Roman alphabet, including French, Spanish, Dutch, and many African languages.

[World Distribution of the Latin Alphabet]

There’s no denying the huge impact the Roman Empire had on the lands it conquered. One of the biggest effects of Roman expansion was on language. Most of the places that use the Roman alphabet today were conquered by the Romans at some point (or conquered by those conquered by the Romans).

During the 1st century, the Roman alphabet contained 23 letters (they didn’t use J, U, or W). As the English language developed, those other three letters were added to make the 26 letters we use today. However, other letters were also added, and subsequently abandoned, along the way.

When Johannes Gutenberg introduced movable type printing to Europe in 1439, he began a revolution in the world of language. Suddenly, ideas could be exchanged through print in a way they never could before. Instead of waiting months for a monk to meticulously copy a manuscript letter by letter, printing blocks could be made and hundreds of copies could be produced at once.

Before the introduction of printing, the alphabet was not the concrete concept we know today. There wasn’t an established way of spelling words, and different regions developed symbols (letters) to suit their individual needs. With the printing press came the beginning of the streamlining process of language. As more and more people became literate and more literature was printed, consistency became more essential to communication.

I’d like to focus on six lost letters of the English alphabet. These letters have since been replaced by other letters, or the sounds they represent have been phased out.

ASH

(short “a” sound like cat, past, and happy)

Languages like Norwegian and Icelandic still use this letter, but English stopped using it when Old English fell out of favor for Middle English. The digraph (pair of letters representing a single sound) æ was called “ash” when it replaced an ancient rune that resembled an ash tree. Ultimately, the letter was abandoned when printing began to streamline the alphabet and eliminate unnecessary letters. Æ was separated into AE, and the language moved on. However, you can still find ash used stylistically in names like Encyclopædia Britannica and ÆON.

ETH

(voiceless “th” sound like thing and thank)

This letter, along with thorn (see below), represented the “th” sound. Eth was meant to distinguish the voiceless dental fricative from the voiced dental fricative. It was represented by a “D” with a stroke through it.

Do this exercise so you can see the distinction. Say the word “thing” very slowly out loud (you won’t be able to tell the difference if you try to do this in your head). Pay attention to the way your tongue presses against the back of your teeth. It probably barely touches your teeth to produce the sound. Now, say the word “this” very slowly out loud. Notice a difference? Your tongue should press more firmly against your teeth, and your throat should constrict slightly as your vocal folds work to produce the sound.

It’s an extremely subtle difference, but in Old English the sounds were much more distinct. As the language evolved, eth fell out of use and was replaced by thorn (below). Several Scandinavian languages still use eth.

THORN

(voiced “th” sound like this and that)

Thorn, named after the original rune it’s derived from, had the same purpose as eth but represented a slightly different sound. Eventually, thorn was used to represent both voiced and voiceless dental fricatives as eth fell out of use. However, as the alphabet was streamlined, thorn also fell out of use and both sounds were represented by the letters “th.”

WYNN

(“w” sound like wait, wind, and watch)

Wynn has a funny story. In early Old English texts, the letters “uu” were used to represent the “w” sound. Then, scholars and scribes streamlined this by borrowing the rune wynn  to make writing easier. Wynn was used in its common form (Ƿƿ) until the 1300s, when it was abandoned for uu again, which soon developed into the new letter “double-u,” or “w.”

ENG

(velar nasal sound in sing, marking, and stinging)

Eng was meant to help condense the modern alphabet, but it failed. A scribe named Alexander Gill the Elder invented the eng in 1619 to represent the “-ing” sound in one character. It uses a hook like a lowercase j to distinguish itself from a normal n. While it was a good idea in theory, the timing was all wrong. Modern English was almost in full swing, and there wasn’t room for new characters in a streamlined alphabet. The character didn’t catch on, but it was adopted into the phonetic alphabet by Benjamin Franklin in 1779.

ETHEL

(There is no modern English equivalent to this sound, but the closest example is the o-umlaut sound in the German word schön, meaning “beautiful.” You can find a pronunciation guide HERE.)

Ethel is named after the Anglo-Saxon rune ēðel, meaning “estate.” Like I mentioned above, the sound it represents doesn’t exist in English anymore because it’s been rounded out over the centuries. In most words, ethel has been replaced with either an e or an o. A good example is the word “federal,” once spelled “fœderal.” However, you can still find ethel in several modern English words: subpœna, amœba, and onomatopœia. In these words, though, the letters are usually separated into “oe,” so the character itself has mostly fallen out of use.

Modern English has 40 sounds (phonemes), all represented by the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). You’ll recognize some of the lost letters that have survived as members of the IPA:

Losing these letters has been a process spanning many centuries; this isn’t something that happens overnight. However, you can still find them in old manuscripts. The most famous example is the original manuscript of Beowulf, an epic poem written in the late 10th century or early 11th century. There is only one surviving copy of the poem, held in the British Library in London. When I studied there in 2010, I visited the British Library and spent as much time as I could staring at the manuscript. Of course, I couldn’t read a word because it’s written in Old English and uses obsolete characters. Here’s the first page:

If you zoom in, you will start to recognize some of the characters I’ve shown you:

Now that you’re able to recognize some of the characters, you can start trying to read Old English. Of course, learning to read Old English fluently can take scholars decades, but you can at least start with the first word of Beowulf in the manuscript above: ǷÆT.

You know that wynn (Ƿ) makes the “w” sound. You know that ash (Æ) makes the short “a” sound. Obviously, you know what sound a “T” makes. Put them together and that sounds like “wat.” Modern American English uses the ə (uh) phoneme instead of æ (short a), but it’s still the same word: WHAT.

English isn’t the only language to go through such a drastic change as losing letters. Much more recently (within the past two decades), Spanish has begun phasing out three “letters.” The letters are actually digraphs that are no longer accepted as part of the alphabet by the Royal Academia Española (RAE): che (ch), elle (ll), and erre (rr). I noticed this change firsthand during my years in school. In elementary school, we learned the Spanish alphabet as represented in the first chart, and even sang a song to go with it. By the time I got to high school, the textbooks had changed to match the second chart, and the alphabet I had learned was no longer correct.

Many linguists and grammarians use the loss of these letters as support for descriptive grammar. They believe that the lost letters prove that English is always changing and evolving to suit the needs of its speakers. Who knows what English will look like in 500 years? For now, though, I’ll stick to Sesame Street.

Suggested Reading:

Algeo, John. The Origins and Development of the English Language, Sixth Edition. Boston: Cengage, 2009.

One Comment

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  1. This is so cool!! As a singer, I had to learn IPA in college. Now I know why we use some of those symbols!

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