We’ve been all around with various letters from different points in our writing system’s history. I have lovingly compiled a poem containing the rules for each of the ex-members we have looked through during the course of this little blog series…
Once you’ve learned the English alphabet
It’s something that’s really quite hard to forget
It’s on all our phones and it’s in every book
It’s all around us wherever we look
This assortment made from shapes aplenty
With members that add to six and twenty
But long ago, this was not the case
And yes, I see that look upon your face!
Were there more letters in the old alphabet?
Yes! There were, loads more and yet
Writers of English are clear forgetters,
As we’ve killed at least a dozen letters!
My goodness, my gracious; where should I begin?
Well, there’s et; there’s that; long ſ and ƿynn;
Not to mention œthel; and æsc; and technically and –
You know? The common symbol, ampers&?
There’s eð, yoȝ and þorn; and there’s insular ᵹ,
And don’t worry, dear reader, I think I can see
Your face looks confused; but how can this be?
Letters I didn’t know, that’re hidden from me?
I can see cogs whirring in your curious head
How do I read them and how the hell are they said?
I can help you with that for a few of them,
So let me start with the little letter eŋ!
‘twas used to represent the n and g
And is beiŋ used today, but phonetically.
Ƿynn was the old flavour of our double-u,
Used just the same, so you’d knoƿ hƿat to do.
Et (⁊) and ampers& are easy to understand
As the pair of them simply mean the word ‘and’
A similar concept for the word known as ‘that’
Represented by ꝥ in writing’s old-hat.
We used to have the ligatures œthel and æsc
Which were basically both a two-lettered ‘mash’
Where style was demanded, they were used
As in fœtus and dæmon whereon e is fused.
Yoȝ is strange and is somewhat trickier
As this extinct letter is much, much pickier
For throatier sounds, gh, and sometimes y
So loch and eye would be loȝ and eȝe.
Long ſ is silly so let’s leave that one out
Because their rules makes you tear your own hair out
Generally, they would be the first s
Of a pair of them in words like fuſsy or cheſs.
G’s cursive friend, insular ᵹ, would be
Used for sounds that were a softer g
It evolved into yoᵹ – that’s how it’s also wrote,
As to which is better, we’d need to vote.
Eð and þorn; both used for the th pair,
one difference between, the pair did bare,
Þorn was voiceleſs whilst eð was not
The first ƿent into þistle, ⁊ into þumb but
The other was in oðer, in breaðing, & ðis
& ꝥ briŋs me to the end of the list
Everyone should try and give ðem a crack;
Though I wonder if we should bring some of them back?
Wouldn’t it be cooler and just so much better,
If we weren’t such hænous letter forgetters!
To sum up, the alphabet looks a little like this with uppercase and lowercase alongside the gothic blackletter style. My diagram includes all of the anachronistic graphemes alongside their contemporaries and time zones;
MJ. stands for majuscule or uppercase graphs, MN. for minuscule or lowercase graphs, and BL. for Blackletter, Old English-styled Gothic script. Ø is used where a graph should be present but there is not one able to found. All dates are rough approximations and the inventory itself is not exhaustive.
Next time, I’ll be taking a look at the grammatical and numerical sets of ‘letters’…
-DP, Linguistics student