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history of the english alphabet

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 Old English alphabet

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 also were 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 English:

  • The ligature character oe (pronounced ethel), 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 ae.

  • 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

 

—note—

about an irreproducible character

The box-shaped character that follows the ampersand symbol (&) in the alphabetic sequence shown above represents an Old English letter that cannot be reproduced on this page because of technological limitations. Sorry.

  • The Modern English alphabet

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 26 letters:

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. For example:

  • 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.

 
The English alphabet evolved during this period and will continue to change as the English language changes.

More

There's lots more to know about the English alphabet.

  • Continue your exploration of the English alphabet at the Wikipedia web site page title, English Alphabet: click here.
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