#15 – 1½ Letters (Ligatures)

Last time (or the last few times) we looked at letters that have dropped from the alphabet, and this time, we will be doing the same thing again but with more focus on Latin letters that have entered into English orthography and have since been sadly dropped.  Recalling monographs or digraphs (the smallest written unit representing a speech sound made of single or double letters respectively), which have been done to death by me, we know that certain sounds in our brain are represented oftentimes by more than one letter, also by single letters as well.

block letters

What about ligatures?  What are they?  They are letters that are represented by more than one grapheme but less than two.  Too large to be considered monographic in some respects, but definitely too small to be considered digraphic.  Time for an example of one that is not extinct…

In Old English when English scribes were becoming more and more attracted towards Latin, Greek, and French writing stylisms, the grapheme for the /w/ and /ʍ/ sounds were not used for a short time and slowly, the <Ƿ, ƿ> grapheme became extinct as a digraphic variant entered into the orthography.  <uu> would come to represent /w/ and /ʍ/ for some time before scribes did not see the point in wasting space on the page – which required a very expensive and painstaking process to create.  And so, the space between the digraph was removed to create a monograph (technically they are monographs as they are only one physical letter despite mentally converging from two).  The name ‘double-you’ even hints at its past as it literally is a double <u>, and this popular method of writing survived as ƿynn (wynn) became extinct.

This kind of digraph where the space in between is reduced to represent the letters monographically is known as a ligature and basically looks like the two originator graphemes squashed together in one, touching grapheme.  It is not to be confused with typographic ligatures which represent a monophone or diphone digraphically on a printing key as the ligature I refer to is known as a true orthographic linguistic ligature.  Typographic ligatures on the other hand are where common digraphs for either a monophone or diphone (a single or a double speech sound respectively) would be present on the same typographic key to save time where common phonic- and letter-blends arose; this was during the initiation of the printing press. 

<Æ æ>

This letter is the semi-extinct ligature with the name pronounced as in the word <ash> and written in uppercase as either ‘Æsc’ or ‘Ash’, and in lowercase as ‘æsc’.  The <a> and <e> have been squashed together much like <o> and <e> in the next grapheme that acts as a twin to the æsc ligature.

<Œ œ>

This letter is less in use than æsc and thus could be considered more extinct, but it is still present in some places if you know where to look.  It has the uppercase name of ‘Œthel’ or ‘Ethel’ and the lowercase of ‘œthel’.  The reason for both of these letters existing is due to the stylistic preference of Latin scribes to save space on expensive sheets of parchment by ligaturing the letters of digraphs into one monograph.  The letters initially used to be digraphic in Classical Latin and have become digraphic once more in the present day as a matter of stylistic preference.

French, although they are not necessarily part of their alphabet, uses both of these ligatures in their orthography for Greek and Latin loanwords.  They almost act as secret letters and given that French has a tendency to overcorrect any loans from other languages into a more native-sounding French variety, it is odd that these loanwords have been left rather under-corrected.  French examples of these loans donning the ligature include:

  • <bœuf> to mean ‘beef’;
  • <œuvre> to mean ‘work’;
  • <cœur> to mean ‘heart’;
  • <vitæ> to mean ‘vitae’ in ‘CV’.

English fully adopted these ligatures for a good many centuries.  They were used in words such as <fœtus> and for the word ‘heathen’ that could be written as <hæðen> or <hæþen>.  Many of the ligature words tended to be loanwords and can still be found relatively recently with these varieties.  Both æsc and œthel are often chosen for stylistic purposes to either represent gothic or archaic style.  Æsc is still used today within Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic orthographies (writing systems);  Icelandic also continues the use of eð and þorn alongside this – hats off to Icelandic for having the coolest alphabet!  Œthel appears relatively well-used in the orthography of the Lombard language.  In the languages that contained Æsc and Œthel, they tended to be the final letter (or two) of the given writing inventory (alphabet) that they were organised within.  If we were to employ these stylisms in the following sentence:

“Marks of the seething phoenix – an unthinkable demon; its genre of language and thought is a farfetched archaeology that thrusts us far away from what is considered to be bland.”

                                                                        we would have something like this…

“Marks of the seething phœnix – an unthinkable dæmon; its genre of language and thought is a farfetched archæology that thrusts us far away from what is considered to be bland.”

I’m a strong advocate of using some of the letters that have fallen from the language’s orthography for both purposes of style and clarity, so, can we bring thæse thœse these back properly as well?

Next, after viewing how stylisms have changed somewhat and then changed back again, we will continue looking at another, much sillier stylism that has quite rightfully become extinct…

-DP, Linguistics student

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