Forgotten Letters of the English Alphabet: Exploring the Lost Characters

Last Updated on November 6, 2023
The Forgotten English Letters: Eth, Thorn, Wynn, Yogh, Long s, Ethel and Ash
The Forgotten Letters (Left to Right): Capital and Lowercase Eth, Thorn, Wynn, Yogh, Long s, Ethel and Ash

The English alphabet, as we know it today, consists of 26 letters. However, this was not always the case. In the early stages of its development, the English language had at least 5 more characters (and two ligatures), all of which have been omitted over the centuries. These forgotten letters of the English alphabet offer a fascinating glimpse into the history of the language and the evolution of its written form.

The Lost Letters

1. Eth (Ð/ð)

The Capital & Lowercase Eth and the word “This” in Old English

One of the most well-known lost letters of the English alphabet is “eth” (Ð/ð). This letter represented the voiced dental fricative sound, similar to the “th” sound in words like “this” and “that.” Eth was commonly used in Old English and Middle English texts but gradually fell out of use during the Middle English period. It was often replaced by the letter “thorn” (Þ/þ), which we will discuss next. Words with Eth: Ðis, ðat and ðe oðer. (This, that and the other)

2. Thorn (Þ/þ)

The word “Then” spelt with Thorn

Thorn, represented by the letterform (Þ/þ) is another letter that has been omitted from the modern English alphabet. It also represented the voiced dental fricative sound, much like “eth.” Thorn was widely used in Old English texts and can be found in words like “þe” (the) and “þorn” (thorn). Whenever you see an old timey reference in a movie to “Ye Olde Tavern,” the “y” is actually the long forgotten thorn. Over time, it was replaced by the letter combo “th.”

3. Wynn (Ƿ/ƿ)

The Letter Evolution of Wynn. From Rune to Wynn, to “u” to double uu (w)

Wynn, represented by the letterform “ƿ” or “Ƿ,” was used in Old English to denote the sound we now represent with “w.” It looked quite similar to the letter “p” in its early form (elder Furthark rune Wynn (). Wynn fell out of use by the Middle English period, where it was replaced with the letter u and then the ligature double “uu.” Double uu’s ligature eventually became “w”.

4. Yogh (Ȝ/ȝ)

The letter Yogh (Ȝ) and the word “night” spelt in Middle English

Yogh, written as “Ȝ,” is a letter that represented various sounds over time, including a guttural sound similar to the “ch” in the Scottish beastie “Loch Ness.” The yogh glyph can be found in many Middle English words like niȝt (“Night”), ȝiefte (“Gift”), ȝise (“Yes”) and ȝisterday (“Yesterday”). The use of yogh became confused with a cursive z and the early Scots printers often used z when yogh was not available in their fonts. Over time, the letter Yogh fell out of favour, mostly due to the confusion of spelling and sounds that were not agreed upon among scribes, as the English language was hardly standardized at the time (1150-1500AD).

5. Long S (ſ)

Left to Right: Long “s”, Short “s” and “f”

The long s, often written as “ſ,” was a letter that looked much like the letter “f” (just without a crossbar) but was used exclusively as an “s” in early English printing. It was used in place of the modern “s” in most positions within a word and can be found in texts dating back to the 16th century. There was also a long list of rules that were not always followed which included: it could never be used for the last letter of word or be used in front or behind an “f” (for clarity).

The word “Possess” with correct long “s” usage

Some words with the long s: ſubſtantive, ſucceſs, ſatisfaction, and ſong. It eventually became less common due to it’s redundancy in sound with the letter “s”, it’s complicated ruleset, and it’s visual similarity to the letter “f”.

6. Œthel (Œ/œ)

Some examples of œ and the word “Amoeba”

Pronounced “ee-thel” this symbol was first created to represent the complicated sounds of the Greek language in the Latin alphabet. It also is used to adapt the sound of the ancient English rune Odal (ᛟ) into the English alphabet. While it is technically a ligature, which is a symbol which is made of a combination of two individual letters “o” and “e”, this character represented the long “e” sound like in words like “need.” Some modern words what you may be familiar with include: Phœbe, amœba, phœnix and subpœna.

7. Ash (Æ/æ)

The ligature of a & e = “æ”

Ash, symbolized by the letter “Æ/æ,” was used in Old English to represent a vowel sound similar to the modern short “a” sound in words like “cat” and “hat.” In modern times however, the sound is funnily enough similar to our previous ligature ethel (“œ”). While it is no longer considered a distinct letter in the English alphabet, it is still used in some modern languages like Danish and Norwegian. Modern examples include: Archaeology, Cæsar, algæ, and vertibræ.

Conclusion

The history of the English alphabet is a rich and complex one, and the forgotten letters mentioned above are just a few examples of how the language has evolved over time. While these letters are no longer part of the standard English alphabet, they provide valuable insights into the linguistic heritage of the language. Exploring these lost characters helps us appreciate the long journey that the English alphabet has taken from its early roots to its current form, and it serves as a reminder of the ever-changing nature of language.

Did I miss any strange characters? Something of note to add to the list? Let me know in the comments. Happy writing.

-Richard

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