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The Lost Letters Of The Alphabet

02/13/2015 10:37 am ET | Updated Apr 15, 2015

It's easy to think of the alphabet we recite and use as something fixed but, like almost everything in language, it changes. We call it Roman, but the Romans wouldn't have recognized our 'J,' 'U' or 'W.' Their 'I' covered the noise we usually make with 'J,' and their 'V' covered some of the sounds we denote with 'U' and 'W.' Another twist of history, the origins of English do not lie with the Romans but with the Germanic peoples of northern Europe. However, in the time when these folks thought that migrating to the British Isles was a good idea, they didn't use the Roman alphabet. The few of them who could write used runes.

These beautiful letters, many of them looking like diagrams of depleted feathers, have their own story but they can be spotted on monuments and stones all over the British Isles. There's also a famous runestone in Solem, Minnesota, discovered by a Swedish-American farmer in 1898. The inscription reads to the effect that a bunch of Norwegians camped out there in 1362, but 10 of them ended up 'red with blood and dead'. I won't dare to enter the debate as to whether this is a genuine Viking job or not. As far as the good people of Solem are concerned, it's the real deal.

Back with the migrants into the British Isles, usually described as 'Anglo-Saxons' and usually reported as turning up just as the Romans were leaving. In they come speaking their Germanic lingo, writing their runes. Yet, within a couple of a hundred years they are writing with what was largely a 'Roman' alphabet. For those who were literate, this would be as big a leap as, say, the English-speaking world of today deciding to switch from the Roman alphabet to, say, the Russian, whilst still speaking English.

As is often the case with language, the change wasn't a straight swap. Some of the old system lingered on. Open a page of Old English (or 'Anglo-Saxon', as some call it), and you'll recognize most letters but not all. And strictly speaking, it's this mélange that is the parent of the alphabet I'm using as I write now, and the Roman alphabet is more like a grandparent. So, let's say you were looking at the unique manuscript of the epic poem Beowulf, sitting in the British Library in London. It was written on 'vellum,' in this case meaning sheep-skin -- and as it's a long poem, that was a whole flock's worth of sheep's skins. It was written down in around the year 1000, almost certainly by a monk and disappears from view until we see it in 1731 flying out of the window of the Sir Robert Cotton's library with flames licking round it.

Some of the letters on the pages of Beowulf have old English names like 'thorn,' 'wynn,' 'ash,' 'eth' and 'ethel' whilst another, 'insular g' is a scholar's name. Though we would recognize the sounds that these letters denoted, we use the letters of the modern alphabet to do that job today. One extreme oddity here, though, is the fate of the thorn which denoted the sound we make when saying the 'th' of 'thorn' but also the 'th' of 'them.' As scribes morphed the way they wrote it, (from a kind of 'p' looking creature to something more like a capital 'Y,' it hung about in manuscripts as the first letter of the word 'the'. If you have ever wandered past a tea-shop or bakery in England which was trying to look old or quaint, it may well have called itself 'Ye olde Tea Shoppe' or 'Ye Olde Cake Roomes' or some such. The 'Ye' is not really a 'yee' at all. It's a bizarre survival of the thorn.

Wynn, which also looks something like a 'p' (!) did the job of our 'w' but this one faded altogether without trace in the modern era. The eth also did the job that our 'th' does, but looked either like our capital 'D' or our 'd' with a line across it. Ash and ethel are much more recognizable in that up until quite recently in British English we wrote 'encyclopedia' as 'encyclopædia' and fetus as 'fœtus.' Thorn, wynn, ash and ethel were survivors from the runic alphabets. Those Old English monks didn't give up entirely on their old ways. Experts in the matter will tell you that the more modern uses of ash and ethel are not really runes, but Roman ligatures -- the tying together of 'a' and 'e,' and 'o' and 'e.' Even so, I like to think that there's something of an echo there of that runic writing.

But why did the Anglo-Saxons adopt the Roman alphabet and why did we lose the pure runic letters co-existing with it? The most obvious reason for adopting it was religion. Christianity spread across Europe written down in Latin. Given that almost all literate peoples were themselves Christians, we can guess that it became more convenient to write with the same letter-system as the one they were reading -- especially as most of what they wrote was in itself religious. Even so, as we've seen, they clung to a few runes. Maybe they were their security blankets to a much-loved heathen past.

But disappear they did. The main reason -- culprits even -- seem to be the group who scholars call 'French scribes.' The great watershed moment for the fate of the English language was the invasion in 1066 of the Norman French. Over the next few hundred years, Old English and Norman French went through a kind of merger. Other inputs came from the French from central France and Latin from religious and legal sources. At the level of people writing things down, scribes of French origin seem to have ruled the roost. And it seems as if they didn't like those old folksy runes. Nor did they like one more of the disappeared letter clan, the 'yogh,' which appeared and disappeared between about 1100 and 1300.

It may for a moment seem incredible that something as important as the existence or nonexistence of our letters could be decided by a small group of scribblers. However, as I've said the a e and o e ligatures have almost entirely disappeared from English writing -- something that was probably more decided by the makers of keyboards than any linguist or Minister of Culture. In the olden times, children used to recite the alphabet and said "and per se 'and'" on the end to indicate that they were reciting the alphabet and the sign, '&.' The name for this is 'ampersand' -- a squashed up pronunciation of "and per se 'and,'" with 'per se' meaning 'on its own' or 'for itself.'

One other disappearance worth noting is the upright 's' which looks rather too much like 'f' for comfort, or rather too much for the amusement of people who like seeing forbidden words in print. The Shakespeare song, 'Where the bee sucks, there suck I' in the original printed version of the First Folio looks rather as if the bee is up to something else altogether. Good for a laugh but had to be excised.

Perhaps @ will become an alphabet letter one day, though strictly speaking it's a 'sign' as it denotes a word rather than a multi-purpose letter. Incidentally, what do you call it? 'The 'at' sign'? All over the world people are calling it something else, like 'spider-monkey.' Or my favorite, from Denmark -- 'roll-mop'. I quite like the idea of reciting an alphabet with a roll-mop on the end.

Michael Rosen is the author of Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells A Story (Counterpoint, $25.00).