Old English

It’s a no from me

We all know the alphabet, right? WRONG.

(Well, not completely wrong, but ‘ONLY A BIT WRONG’ didn’t work as well dramatically.)

I was watching Only Connect the other day (the hardest quiz on TV™ – if I get one question right I do a little dance and feel like I’m winning at life), and one of the questions was about letters of the alphabet which we don’t use anymore. After an obligatory not-at-all in-depth internet search I discovered there are at least 12 letters which didn’t make it through the audition stages of the competition. 12, I hear you splutter? I can’t handle the excitement! Don’t fret, I’m only going to tell you about six now – I’ll save the rest for a later blog post (I wouldn’t want to spoil you).

So, in no particular order, here we go...

1. Thorn

You know when you see a sign that says ‘Ye olde something shoppe’? That ‘y’ at the start of ‘Ye’ actually isn’t a ‘y’ – it’s a whole other letter which means we should be pronouncing ‘ye’ as... ‘the’. Okay, so that’s not terribly exciting, but in days of yore (or should that be thore? No, no it shouldn’t), there was a single letter for the ‘th’ sound called thorn. Here’s what it looks like:

þ

So, what happened to the thorn? Turns out it’s those pesky printers’ fault. When the printing press made its way to our shores from Europe, it didn’t have a thorn, as no one else used it. So some bright spark decided that the closest thing to it was a ‘y’ (really? Not a ‘p’?). And that’s where we get ‘Ye’ from.

Thorn itself was an Anglo Saxon rune from the Elder Futhark runic alphabet which looks pretty awesome and I wish we still used today. And thorn is actually spelled þorn (hee hee hee).

2. Ampersand

Yep, you did read that right. The ampersand (&) was originally a proud member of the alphabet (in fact, it was the last letter of the alphabet), and was only downgraded in the 19th century. Don’t believe me? Here it is in all its glory in an 1863 book called The Dixie Primer, for the Little Folks (you can see the whole of that book here).

moor5.jpg

Interesting (kinda) fact: it wasn’t always called an ampersand. When people were reciting the alphabet, they’d say ‘X, Y, Z, and’, which sounds a bit stupid. So, some very clever person decided to say ‘and per se’ instead, which basically means ‘by itself’ (I bet that person got punched in the face a lot). Eventually the three words were run together, and we ended up with ‘ampersand’. 

I love ampersands (except when people use them instead of ‘and’ for no reason). This is a picture of a shelf in my house which demonstrates just how much:

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3. Ash

We do still use this one today. Although when I say ‘we’ I mean pretty much no one. Here it is:

Æ

This is a ligature, which is a posh way of saying it’s two letters smushed together. Like thorn, ash comes from the Futhark alphabet. It managed to survive the Norman conquest and was around until the 13th century before it fell by the wayside. It did stage a comeback in the 16th century when writers started to borrow from Latin and Greek for words we didn’t have at the time, but you’re unlikely to see it anywhere in English these days. It does still appear in the alphabets of some languages though, including Danish, Norwegian and Icelandic.

Here’s a list of some everyday words which used to contain ash:

  • archæology
  • curriculum vitæ
  • fæces (because I have to get something poo-related in every blog post I write)
  • hæmorrhage
  • pædiatrician
  • vertebræ.

There’s loads more here.

4. The long S

You’ve definitely seen this one. It’s basically what it says on the tin – that long ‘s’ that everyone thinks is an ‘f’. Here it is in a book only to be sold by Spiderman:

 

Milton_paradise.jpg

Confusingly, the long s wasn’t superseded by the ‘s’ we use today – they were both in action at the same time. Madness. I won’t even try to explain this lexical anomaly because thankfully another blogger has already done that for me. Find out about that here.

5. Yogh

In a weird coincidence, I was having a chat with my sister’s partner over the weekend, and he informed me that the shop John Menzies* should actually have been pronounced John ‘Mingis’ (I can’t remember why we were talking about John Menzies – conversational gold, I’m sure). It turns out that the reason for this is the old English and Scots letter yogh. Here it is, looking suspiciously like a 3:

ȝ

Yogh actually had three (!) different pronunciations, depending on whereabouts in the word it appeared. So in modern English it could either be spoken as a ‘y’ as in ‘yes’ or a ‘g’ as in ‘night’, while in Scotland it would be the ‘ch’ in ‘loch’. 

So, what happened to yogh? Once again, it’s the fault of the printing press. In English-English it was rendered in print as a ‘y’, while in Scottish-English it was replaced with a ‘z’. Hence the FUBAR John Menzies pronunciation**.

I’m concerned about what this means for how I say the word ‘yoghurt’.

6. Eth

Here’s an eth for you:

ð

Eth comes from Irish, and originally represented a slightly different pronunciation of ‘th’. It was essentially a softer version of thorn (depending on your regional accent) – so more like ‘thing’ than ‘them’. (The first is the voiceless dental fricative, while the second is the voiced dental fricative. Well, OBVS.)

It was thorn that killed off eth – people just started using thorn all the time, so eth didn’t have a job anymore. So it eth-ed off. 


I’ve said it (many times) before and I’ll say it again – the English language is an ever-changing beast. And that’s a great thing. Who knows what kind of alphabet kids will be singing in a few hundred years’ time (assuming the impending apocalypse hasn’t happened of course). I have a suspicion it may well be emoji based...


* For any young people reading, John Menzies was a WH Smith-type shop that was around in the 90s. I used to frequent the café when I was a student because it was the only one in Colchester you could smoke in. Ah, memories.

** This also applies to Menzies ‘Ming’ Campbell and Dalziel in Dalziel and Pascoe (which should be pronounced Dee-ell). Unfortunately it does not explain why Mainwaring is pronounced Mannering.