Dec 14, 2012

Lost Letters of the Alphabet (and Other Weird Letters, Too!)

Have you ever wondered why we have some letters in our alphabet but not others, or why certain letters were lost in the transition from Greek to Roman to English?  Or, did you not even realize that there were other letters out there?  Either way, I'm here to help, with this handy guide to the lost letters of English.

Take this bit of literature, for example:

Hwæt! We Gardena          in geardagum,
þeodcyninga,          þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas          ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing          sceaþena þreatum,

If you recognize that as the the beginning of the epic Old English poem Beowulf, you get ten points.*

Now try to read it out loud.  It's hard, right?  How does one pronounce "hu ða æþelingas"? (The answer is "hoo tha ethelinguhs").  We have a hard time understanding it because we've lost three of the letters in this passage: æ, þ, and ð.  Of course, there are even more than that!  Read on if you'd like to know what they are!

Well, let's start with those three I just mentioned.

Æ, æ

As you may have guessed already, Æ is basically the letters A and E pushed together into one.  Linguistically, it's called a 'ligature'.  For the Romans, this was just a handy way to save some space.  For Old English (and still today in some Northern European languages), it's a letter unto itself.  That letter is called 'æsch' (meaning 'ash' as in the type of tree), and it's generally pronounced somewhere between an A and E.  Common words that once used it are 'ether' (æther) or 'medieval' (mediæval).

Þ, þ

This letter is called 'thorn' (or 'þorn') and it's one of my favorites.  Originally part of the ancient runic alphabet, it basically filled the gap that had been left when Latin adapted the Greek alphabet and dropped theta, the 'th' sound.  Thorn is found regularly throughout Old and Middle English manuscripts, largely because so many of our modern articles and pronouns used to have it (the, this, that, those, these).  Thorn still appears today at renaissance fairs, where we see stores saying "Ye Olde Whatever".  The reason they say that is because lowercase thorn and lowercase Y looked so similar (EME ye.svg - doesn't that look like a lowercase Y?). So "Ye Olde Whatever" would've actually been pronounced "The Olde Whatever".  Thorn stopped being used sometime in the 1400s, with vestigial use in the early versions of the King James Bible (in the early 1600s, where it was written as 'ye', but understood to be pronounced as 'the').  Thorn is still used in Icelandic.


This is called eth, and in Old English, it was pretty much interchangeable with thorn (sometimes you'll even see the same word in the same document interchanging the two throughout).  In modern Icelandic, it is more associated with the 'th' sound in mother or the or these, while thorn is used for the 'th' in words like (surprise) thorn or thistle.  Eth disappeared early in the Middle English period (around 1200-1300).

Now, here are a few others you may have seen or heard of:


Often called 'ethel' or 'œthel', this letter is similar to æsch and is still in use in British English and French, though rarely in American English. It is usually pronounced as a short or long E.  Words that used it include fœderal ('federal'), subpœna ('subpoena'), or diarrhœa ('diarrhea').

Ƿ, ƿ

Although it looks a lot like thorn, this letter is actually 'wynn', used in Old and Middle English until around 1300 AD.  The letter itself was originally a rune (like thorn; those two letters are the only two that are derived from runes), but was brought into Old English to replace what had previously been written as 'uu' (surprise--it's a double-u, or W).  It was, for a short time, modified in Old Norse into the letter 'vend' below:

Ironically, even though wynn replaced 'uu', it was itself replaced by non other than the double-u.

Ȝ, ȝ

This is the letter yoȝ (or 'yogh').  It appeared in English during the Middle English period, being borrowed from the Gaelic languages.  It was generally pronounced as 'ch', as in 'loch', though sometimes acted as a Y or W.  In most cases it actually replaced the letter G, which had been used in Old English but sometimes pronounced as G and sometimes as Y (for example, in the Beowulf passage above, the word geardagum would be pronounced "yar-dagoom").  It disappeared during the Middle English period.  One word that used to be spelled with yogh, before dropping it completely?  ȝif ("if").


If you are an American or a math student (or both), you have almost certainly seen this letter, even if you didn't realize it.  It's called a 'long s', and basically, it's a stylistic use of the letter S, indistinguishable in pronunciation.   It appears, most notably for Americans, in the U.S. Bill of Rights, where it looks like the word is "Congrefs":

The long s had been in use since Roman times, usually appearing whenever there was a lowercase S at the beginning or in the middle of a word.  It had almost fully disappeared from English by the first decade or two of the 19th century.  It does remain, however, in mathematical notation, as the sign of an integral in calculus (integral originally being called a 'ſumma'):

It's still pretty weird looking, though.


Ampersand is a weird letter/symbol, because it has been used as both in its history.  The name comes from the way the alphabet was formerly written, with & coming after Z.  When you would finish your alphabet, you would say "...X, Y, Z, and, per se, &" (per se meaning "on its own", pointing out that ampersand stands alone, not as a letter within a word--you wouldn't go off and eat some yummy c&y for Halloween).  Eventually "and, per se, and" became "ampersand".  The letter, as you probably know, represents the word "and", though is derived from the Latin "et" (meaning, of course, "and"):


This letter, called "eng" was barely used outside of phonetic alphabets.  It was developed in 1619 to replace the English "ng" (or, should I say, "Eŋlish"), but never really caught on.  Ben Franklin liked it, though.  It is used in many foreign alphabets.


This letter, which doesn't have a name that I can find, is a ligature of Greek omicron (O) and upsilon (Y).  it was never used in English, but it appears somewhat often in Byzantine religious icons.  It also appeared in Algonquin alphabets, though has been largely replaced by W.

The Claudian Letters

Ↄ, Ⅎ, 

These are my favorite letters that weren't, called "The Claudian Letters" after the Roman Emperor Claudius, who promulgated them when he ascended to the throne.  Suetonius writes:

Besides this he [Claudius] invented three new letters and added them to the alphabet, maintaining that they were greatly needed; he published a book on their theory when he was still in private life, and when he became emperor had no difficulty in bringing about their general use. These characters may still be seen in numerous books, in the daily gazette, and in inscriptions on public buildings.

Each letter serves a distinct purpose, trying to fill holes in the Latin language:

  • would replace BS and PS.  A similar phonetic replacement had happened earlier with GS and CS being replaced by X (something we still do today).
  • would act as a consonant V, representing our modern V or W sounds (Latin only had V, which represented our modern U, V, and W).
  • is a stranger one, filling the void, basically, of the Greek letter upsilon (Y).  While the distinction isn't particularly notable in modern English, it would've been a vowel somewhere between our modern U and I.

As with many reforms, these died out with Claudius.  Very few Roman inscriptions ever used them.  Good try, though!

In conclusion...

There are, naturally, many more letters (and alphabets, and systems of writing) out there, but these are examples of some that English and Latin have lost over the years.  Interesting, no?

* If you recognize that the translation is roughly: "Lo!** We Spear-Danes in days of yore, of people-kings, glory have heard, how those princes did valorous acts.  Often Scyld son of Scef from enemy troops, ..." you get ten more points.
** If you disagree with my translation of hwæt, preferring "What!" or "Listen!" you win the game automatically.

1 comment:

Sol Lee said...

Yo, this was super interesting!