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The Evolution of the English Alphabet

Not only has the English language evolved greatly over the last 1500 years, but so has the alphabet itself. Although the modern English alphabet contains 26 familiar letters, it took some fascinating twists, turns, and dead-ends to arrive there.

After the 6th century, when Christian monks began transliterating Anglo- Saxon into Latin characters, they hit a snag. Anglo-Saxon contained a few sounds that Roman letters could not accommodate. So the monks borrowed three old runes: ð (eth, usually for the voiced1 "th" in the middle of a word, as in "breathe"), þ (thorn, usually for the unvoiced "th," as in "thumb"), and Ƿ (wynn, for our w). The presence of those runes is just one reason why Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon manuscripts look so strange now. Another, less obvious reason is the absence of j and u. In this case, though, the monks didn't know what they were missing, since those letters did not exist in the classic Latin alphabet.

We generally have the Normans to thank (or to blame, depending on your viewpoint) for the disappearance of ð, þ, and Ƿ. Through their influence, the runic holdovers gradually faded away, although ð still survives today in Ireland. In a way, þ survives, too–albeit in a corrupt form in the names of faux-quaint establishments such as "Ye Olde Ale House." Anglo-Saxons spelled the definite article "þ e," and copyists and early typesetters eventually resorted to y as a close approximation of þ. As late as the 1600s–well into the era that linguists consider Modern English–yt often appeared in printed texts as an abbreviation for "þ at" ("that"). As for Ƿ, copyists had already begun phasing it out even before 1066, substituting vv instead; the French-speaking invaders finished it off during the 12th century.

How did u and j come to join the exclusive club of 26? The distinction between i and v began in the Middle Ages, when scribes used the roundbottomed letter within words and the pointy version for the first letter of a word–"vpon," for example. Differentiating between v as a consonant and u as a vowel, each with distinct sounds, didn't begin until the 18th century. The letter j grew out of a flourish, when medieval monks took to adding a tail to i at the end of Roman numerals. As the representation of a distinct sound, it invaded England along with the Normans.

With characteristic ingenuity, Benjamin Franklin tried to improve this hodgepodge of symbols by proposing a revised alphabet in 1768. He deleted c, j, q, w, x, and y because other letters represent those sounds. And he added six letters of his own invention–including a stylized script h for the voiced "th" once represented by ð. Although Franklin's alphabet never caught on and the inventor himself eventually lost enthusiasm for it, his friend Noah Webster incorporated some of Franklin's ideas in the famous Blue-Backed Speller, taught to elementary students for more than a century.

1 In phonetic terminology, "voiced" indicates that the sound is produced via vibration of the vocal cords, while a voiceless (or unvoiced) sound is not.

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