Are there more than 26 letters in the English alphabet?
All English speakers learn their ABCs at an early age, and remain quite confident that they know all 26 letters of the English alphabet. However, Old English had a few extra letters that tend to get left out nowadays (as well as using some of the ones we’re familiar with in a slightly different way). Just what were these letters, and when did they disappear from English?
Long S (ſ)
The long s (ſ) resembles a present day ‘f’ without a bar, which can cause confusion if older English texts are not read carefully. This letter was used only at the start or in the middle of a word, never at the end, and would have been pronounced just as a short s is. The use of long s dropped first in print, at the onset of the 19th century, though it remained in use in handwritten documents for a while longer. The London printer John Bell—who was a figure in type design with a particular interest in modern type—is thought to be largely influential in the decline in use of long s in printed works. Joseph Ames’s book Typological Antiquities, published in 1749, is an early example of a text published entirely without the use of long s.
Eth (Ð and ð)
The sound represented by eth is there in the name: in Old English, it was used where present day English would use ‘th’. This letter has both an uppercase (Ð) and lowercase (ð) form. Most likely introduced to English before 700 AD, ð is believed to have first symbolized only the voiced fricative (that used in ‘this’). By the 9th century, it was used for both voiced ‘this’ and voiceless ‘think’. Eth was used into the 13th century, but rapidly declined after 1250. Unlike long s, eth could appear at any point in a word, although after the ninth century (when it competed with the thorn, below, to represent the ‘th’ sound) it was slightly more common at word final.
The eth is still used in modern Icelandic, and is also used (in its lowercase form) in the International Phonetic Alphabet to symbolize the voiced sound ‘th’ in this’.
The thorn is a rune resembling a ‘p’ with a long vertical stroke (þ), but is pronounced exactly as eth is: like other runes, it is named after a word for which it is a first letter, meaning it corresponds to present day English ‘th’ as in ‘thorn’ (and also the voiced ‘th’ as in ‘this’). It was used interchangeably with eth, although survived for much longer.
The thorn seems to have first been adopted into English in the 8th century, although it did not see widespread usage until the late 9th century. In later use, the þ changed form in some handwriting, coming to be identical with ‘y’; in print, the ‘y’ was sometimes used to substitute a thorn, which was rarely available on printing presses. This later form may be familiar from the abbreviation ‘ye’ used in late Middle English for ‘the’; this abbreviation was used up to the 19th century in handwritten texts, and was used in print during the 15th and 16th centuries, particularly by Scottish printers.
‘Ye’ and ‘ye’ are now more familiar from the pseudo-archaic modifier ‘ye olde’, typically thought of as beginning with the modern letter ‘y’ rather than a modified thorn, and thus having a pronunciation of /jiː/; historically, ‘ye’ would have had the same pronunciation as ‘the’. ‘Ye olde’ in this jocular use dates back to the late 19th century.
Though no longer in use in English, þ is still a part of the current Icelandic alphabet.
The sound /w/ was initially represented in Old English with the duplication of the letter u as ‘uu’ (perhaps unsurprisingly, given the name of the letter representing this sound in present day English is double-U!). However, in the 8th century a unique character, another rune, was adopted to symbolize this sound: this was wynn (ƿ). Like the rune thorn, the wynn is named after a word for which it is the first sound, in this case the Old English word ‘ƿynn’ (pronounced like ‘win’) meaning ‘joy’. While the use of wynn in English grew, across the Channel France and Germany began to use ‘uu’ in particular contexts. Subsequently, in the 11th century Norman scribes brought ‘uu’ back to England, although with a ligature joining the two letters, resulting in something that much more strongly resembled the ‘w’ we are familiar with today. This ligatured ‘uu’ slowly overtook the wynn, and the wynn fell out of use around 1300 AD.
Ash (ᚫ; later Æ and æ)
ᚫ was another Old English runic letter, and so you know the drill now: the letter was named after the first sound of the word ‘æsc’, meaning ‘ash tree’. It would have been pronounced somewhere between an ‘a’ and an ‘e’, similar to the vowel in ‘cat’ as pronounced by US speakers of English. Of the letters we’ve looked at today, this is the one that is likely most familiar to speakers of present day English, in its Roman alphabet form of Æ or æ. However, modern words with an ‘æ’ or an ‘ae’ spelling in them tend not to be legacies of ash in Old English or Early Modern English, but rather more likely demonstrate the ash’s use representing the digraph ‘ae’ in words derived from Latin, or from Greek via Latin. The ligature is used rarely in present day English, particularly in American English where ‘ae’ spellings have commonly been simplified to ‘e’. For example, British English encyclopaedia might be written as encyclopædia, but this possibility does not exist for the US spelling encyclopedia.
The Roman ash (æ) is a letter in a number of modern languages, including Icelandic, Danish, and Norwegian, and is also used as a symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet, much like eth.