#19 – Anachronistic Alphabets & Letter Forgetters

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…

Letter Forgetter

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 ,

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

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