Just before talking about the title of this week’s article, I wanted to introduce you to the last letter on my personal list…
Meet ‘eng’, or rather ‘eŋ’, which is an <n> with a right-hooked descender and is used to represent a single phone, /ŋ/, in the IPA itself and was introduced centuries prior to the IPA’s creation as a letter for exactly the same purpose. The letter itself does look rather distinctive and was designed as a nod to both the <n> and <g> that came to often represent the phoneme digraphically, so you could in a way say it became ligatured.
Whilst I think the letter would have saved time and space and add a little more cool to our boring contemporary alphabet, scribes were not so keen on it and when the suggested letter had been proposed due to knowledge of Icelandic writing systems having their own letter, <ǥ>, to represent the phoneme (which is extinct in Modern Icelandic like most of the letters we have been talking about). Later on, linguist scribes – yes, they existed – decided they required a letter for the phoneme (the smallest cognitive unit of speech sound stored within the brain), and so, searching for ideas everywhere, they turned not to the actual runtish letter to perhaps give it some oomph. They also looked away from the Middle Icelandic variety as well. Scribes had decided to upturn the insular ᵹ to represent the phoneme and looked like this… ꝿ
For a few centuries, ŋ bore the same phonetic distinction as the written grapheme, which is written in IPA as /ŋ/, but that is in the Standard British English (whatever that may be anyway). Most dialectal varieties of English actually pronounce the <ng> quite often as [ng], which is to say the <n> in <think> with a ‘g’ succeeding it. The unpopular letter was mistakenly misprinted as <n> with <y> overprinted on top of it. This mistake, coupled with a scholarly disliking of the grapheme due to someone having just ‘come up’ with it through boredom (which is how most letters came to exist I assume, so disliking it is a little mean) all meant that the letter was barely used before it got forgotten about. Until the phonetic alphabet came along, and it once again had a fitting usage.
All the strange influences scribes have had on the language itself lead to one question… why?
Well, scribes are, shall we say, a little naughty. They were the ones well-off enough to afford the grandiose educations and also the ones who said what was what and how to speak, write, and live, &c.; most, not all of them. People like Chaucer influenced the language greatly due to their own educated (for the time) scholarly preferences from other languages that they would steal and implement in English writings. Whilst a lot of letters lingered for a while as the countries of Middle English and Gaelic varieties were much less well connected, they had no idea of preferred stylisms and forced innovations by the scholarly class until at least a generation or two down the line.
Another accompaniment to this reason for their strong hand (or mouth) in linguistic bungling was due to parchment. The old-fashioned method of inscribing our anecdotes, teachings, and general scribblings in the Western world – some places did have paper back then, but we were a little slow on the uptake. Parchment was obtained from the skin of cattle; which tended be bovine candidates. In times where many desired to get the most out of things, waste skin was often sold for this very purpose and later became a primary reason for rearing cattle. It was by no means an easy or quick process. The animal would be flayed (its skins removed) and then the hides soaked in water for about a day to remove its grime. The softened skin would be placed into a dehairing concoction for around a week at least (a process that was often doubled in wintry weathers) and had to be stirred thrice a day to ensure uniform absorption of the dehairing solution. The skins could not be left for too long else it would not be able to stand the stretching process. The skins were then pulled taught in the middle of a wooden frame where the skins were suspended by ropes, leathers, and small but smooth rocks in some cases until they were dry. The stretching would align the collagen fibres and straighten them to form a very flat and sturdy, paper-like stuff. Parchment.
To add to this gruesome, arduous, painstaking process, there were often imperfections that simply just had to be gotten along with, such as blemishes, stray bovine nipples (never thought I’d write that), and scars that could not be avoided. So, due to the influence they’d had, and the expense and time consumed in the process of making parchment, even amongst the scholarly class, they did their best to try and conserve as much space as possible – which is why digraphs and some letters were not preferred. Although, quite like most things of its time, some of the decisions were nonsensical, such as the inclusion of more Romance digraphs, but some of the letters were causers of confusion that I have previously mentioned, and after all that, scribes really didn’t want the pieces they were pouring the efforts into to be misunderstood. Though we’d all have a job deciphering what they meant nowadays anyway.
Next time, I shall poke some fun at the old, lost letters with a little poem and an anachronistic alphabet…
-DP, Linguistics student