So far, the letters, or graphemes, of yesteryear that we have encountered are thorn/þorn <Þ þ>; eth/eð <Ð ð>; and yogh/ȝogh <Ȝ ȝ>. All of these three strange and wonderful letters had uses and were popular and frequent enough that you would likely be able to spot them in a fair few medieval manuscripts of the correct time period – though given their few centuries of co-existence into early Middle English, it would not be too difficult to find one with all three of them present. Last time, I dissected the death of Yogh and worked backwards – now, I shall continue going backwards by also going forwards to see where Yogh came from and the graphemic ancestral lineage related to it. I could have just said its family – I know.
< G, g >
Wait a second – hear me out. I know you’re thinking: this is already a letter I know and that it isn’t extinct – which is true. On the other hand, it kind of isn’t true and is in this strange not-quite-extinct-but-semi-redundant grey area. This grapheme, or stylism of a letter, is known as the Carolingian G and whilst the capital is exactly the same as the regular capitalised <G> we have today – that’s because it is Carolingian, its lowercase counterpart is slowly deviating from this. Ask yourselves how many times do you really see a <g>? The answer will be fairly many times in formal typing, but more and more fonts nowadays do not use the lowercase Carolingian g, and certainly most of the people I know would not be using this variant of the grapheme to write the letter ‘g’. We have two tail-types of the letter ‘g’…
1. The Carolingian looptail lowercase double-storey <g>
2. The handwritten opentail lowercase single-storey <ɡ>
So, you kind of know what I am talking about, that we have an archaic typed variant, and a newer written variant. The original loop tail was replaced by the open tail as it was much easier to write, and as a result, it has remained popular and is rapidly replacing its older, loop tail friend. <g> stands as the most well-known grapheme that is likely to be lost in favour of a preferred, easier-to-write grapheme, but that said, in this age of data preservation, it is highly unlikely that it really will become extinct.
This letter was in fact reborrowed from Latin as a replacement for Ȝ but is in fact a lot older than it in terms of time – only it was used on the European continent far before it ever surfaced here. But what do I mean by reborrowed? Well, even during the time of Yogh, this G was actually in use and had been borrowed from a time much earlier on than Yogh in Later Old English. So, even though this letter is an older relative of yogh, and also a sibling to it, it was also its successor, but the reason that both Carolingian G and Yogh exist are due to an even older letter entirely…
< Ᵹ, ᵹ >
It’s Insular G! Or should I say Insular Ᵹ? This precursor to both the Carolingian and Yogh variants of ‘g’ originated, like Carolingian G, from the Roman alphabet on the European continent. The letter was originally a /g/ sound – that is a voiced plosive coming from the velum or soft palate within the oral cavity. This letter was very popular with Irish scribes who adopted it very quickly, other scribes were not so quick on the uptake but eventually warmed to it and would have occurred during the times of Early to Middle Old English. It had been used for centuries and eventually there began to be a great many varieties of phonetic outputs. It was in France that the letter was first stylistically altered from Insular to Carolingian, and the child of the Insular Ᵹ was adopted throughout the rest of Europe with the exception of the British Isles; though some do claim that it originated separately, here, from cursive Irish typeface.
Eventually, the new Carolingian G variety came into contact with us and many scribes adopted it in Late Old English, but the current letter was still far too popular and was seen as the domestic variety, so the two letters were used synchronously. After changes in pronunciation occurred as English transitioned from the Old to the Middle, the letters began to represent different sounds – but this varied depending upon region and so would be difficult to describe.
In Irish, the insular variety remained alongside the emerging stylism – which was Yogh, and the Carolingian variant was never really adopted as the cursive style of Irish Gaelic did not really allow for it. So, in English, Insular G, <ᵹ>, which can be described as a /ɣ/ sound (a voiced velar fricative), morphed into Yogh, <ȝ>, and was accompanied by another of its own transformations from another language, <g>. The insular variety was all but dead by the time Early Middle English was in full swing so didn’t even have time to get to know ð very well, though it did get to share a space in the alphabet within the same timeframe as þ.
There we have it! Insular G was thrust into the orthography during Middle Old English only to evolve in its originator system into Carolingian G and also evolving in its immigratory system where it became Yogh. The immigratory language system tried to keep the archaic Insular G alive but it slowly died alongside Yogh and the pair ended up dying off altogether upon the introduction of the printing press and the reintroduction of the same, but newly-evolved Carolingian G.There’s still a little more to tell about <Ȝ> and <G>’s ancestor <Ᵹ> as it too descended from another grapheme – a runic letter. I’ll tell you about this letter, and another one from the same alphabet that dispels the myth that English only borrowed <w> from Latin next time…
-DP, Linguistics student