Speaking and writing interacted. Written English changed as spoken English changed. In turn, the English
alphabet developed to reflect the way English was written.
Two English alphabets
evolved to meet the demands placed on writing by changes in speech:
The first alphabet to be used to write the English
language would not be recognizable by someone schooled only in modern
English. The English language was first written in the
Anglo-Saxon Futhorc runic alphabet, which came into use in the 5th
century. Very few examples of this writing have survived, and these
examples are found
only in short inscriptions or fragments, so that it's impossible to
identify a complete set of character symbols, to specify symbol sources,
or to describe how characters developed.
In about the 7th century the Latin alphabet began to
be used by the Anglo-Saxon English, and the English language began to be written in both the Latin
and Anglo-Saxon Futhorc alphabets. English was written with these mixed
character sets for some time. During this period, the Latin alphabet
influenced the Futhorc language by providing it with some of its letters.
Also during this period, some additional non-Futhorc characters
introduced into English. These characters were taken from the Insular g
language of the ancient Irish by Norman scribes, and also from the Carolingian g
language, both dead languages today.
Ligature characters also were introduced into Old
The ligature character oe (pronounced
which was based on a Futhorc rune, appeared in very old Old English as a
letter in its own right.
Also based on a Futhorc rune, the ligature character
Æ and introduced as a letter in its own right. AE was pronounced
ash and named æsc. It stood for the character symbol
The letter w (pronounced double-u) was
another Old English ligature. The letter w was formed by placing
two letter vs side-by-side as a single character.
(The letter v visually resembles the letter
u. Greek and Roman sculptors frequently carved the letter v
instead of the letter u when a u was to appear on a
marble sculpture because marble tends to crumble when it's carved in the
shape of a u. Seeing two vs (that is, two us)
side-by-side on sculptures may have influenced the Old English to combine
two letter vs into a single letter w. Possibly the letter
w became known as a double u instead of as a double v
because of this practice.)
In the year 1011, a writer named Byrhtferð put the
letters of the Old English alphabet into an ordered sequence. At the top, he listed the 24 letters
derived from the Latin alphabet (including the ampersand); then he added five
additional English letters, starting with the Tironian symbol for the
nota, an Insular symbol for and.
Byrhtferð's objective in
ordering his alphabet was to facilitate its use in numerology, not in linguistics.
Nevertheless, with this move the alphabet took a step forward because it gave
people an established English alphabetic sequence that was relatively easy
to learn, memorize, and write with. It was the first such arrangement.
Byrhtferð's 24-character sequence is shown below:
A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T V
X Y Z & ⁊ Ƿ Þ Ð Æ
Once-accepted characters like þ and Ð, still used in present-day
Icelandic, are now obsolete in modern English. More changes like these
deletions occurred in the 14th and 15th Centuries. Letters u and j were introduced in the
16th century and w became an independent letter. Changes have
continued to occur until as recently as the 19th century, and more changes
can be expected. Change is an inherent aspect of language.
Today, the English alphabet consists of the following
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T
U V W X Y Z
Although important orthographic elements, ligatures
and diacritic marks are not considered elements of the alphabet. Custom
seems to dictate how these non-alphabetic orthographic elements are used.
In modern American English, it has become common to
see two letters instead of one ligature in non-academic writing.
Ligatures such as æ and œ are still commonly used only in
formal writing and only for certain words of Greek or Latin origin; they
are not used in other kinds of writing. For example, encyclopædia
may be used instead of encyclopedia and fœtus may be used
instead of fetus.
This change in linguistic practice illustrates how
social and other factors can work to produce change even in so basic a
linguistic device as an alphabet. Dropping ligatures is partly the
result of indifference to language subtleties by modern writers. It also
occurs because of technological innovations like the
QWERTY computer keyboard, which does not have keys
that represent ligatures for economic, efficiency, and software reasons.
- Diacritic marks are never used in the modern spellings of native
English words, but may appear when English borrows foreign loan-words
such as naïve and façade. Even then, as such words become
"naturalized," diacritics tend to disappear. Words that are still
perceived as foreign tend to retain diacritics.
Diacritics are still sometimes used to indicate a word's syllables.
For example, cursed is pronounced with one syllable; cursèd
is pronounced with two.