Special Edition: Old Letters (or the Four “Billy No Mates” of the Alphabet)

I like old stuff, really old stuff.  Walking around this marvellous city, nothing seems more exciting than the most ancient parts (Peterhouse’s 13th century Hall – see my previous post “Living La Viva Loca“, Corpus Old Court for example – built 1350, and the Round Church from circa 1130).  The amount of history that they have witnessed is simply staggering.  At home in Surrey, things are just the same.  There’s a church in my town that was built in 1095, and two of my local pubs were established in the 14th century (although I don’t just like them for their history – they do some solid real ales and pretty decent food too, but I digress).

Perhaps this interest in the past is where I get my fascination with my own genealogy from, and why I think Archæan geology is the most interesting?  There certainly does seem to be a pattern.  My favourite rock in my collection is my 2.7 Ga (or 2,700,000,000 years old for you non-geologists) Lewisian Gneiss that I picked up on the trip to Skye last June/July.

Anyway, all that aside, it is my rather archaic and outdated orthography that has prompted this inaugural special edition.  I’m sure you’ve noticed that I enjoy using “æ” (capital “Æ”) in my writing (both typed and handwritten) to denote “ae” (or simply “e” for those of you from North America).  I decided to do some digging around to see if this delightful character had any chums, or whether it would instead be classified as being “forever alone”.  At this point I feel it would be somewhat prudent to bung in a quick disclaimer, as I am not even remotely close to being any sort of linguistics expert.  If any English or ASNaC students are reading this, and there are major errors, please let me know, as I’d like to be accurate!

The first revelation I came across was that “æ” (named “ash”) used to be in the Old and Middle English alphabets, but its current usage in words such as “mediæval” is merely a combination of “a” and “e” (in linguistics speak, this combining of letters is apparently called a “ligature” – no I hadn’t heard of that word before either) rather than “æ” sensu stricto.

Nevertheless, there are several other letters that have sadly been culled over the past 1,000 years.

The first of these dearly departed friends is named “eth”, or (as an alternative spelling) “eð”.  This probably gives you a clue as to what this letter looks like – “ð” is the lower case, with “Д being the capital. It was used to denote a “th” sound (such as in “thank you”), and is still, like ash, used today in modern Icelandic.  “Д lost the popularity contest at some point in the 13th century, and was replaced by our next character.

This cheeky chappy replaced poor old eth, but only lasted about 200 years.  Given that it replaced eth, it had the same pronunciation.  So, allow me to introduce – “þ” (lower case), “Þ” (upper case), or, for those to whom he is yet to be acquainted – “thorn”.  Thorn is also used in modern Icelandic (although I don’t see why both eth and thorn are needed if they’re pronounced in the same way, perhaps someone who speaks Icelandic could comment below).

Third in our rogues’ gallery is the letter “wynn”: “Ƿ” (capital), “ƿ” (lower case).  Wynn was used for “w” sounds, until it got replaced by “uu” which then became “w” – hence why “w” is called “double-u”.

The final letter in this line up is named “yogh” (pronounced “yog” as in “yoghurt”, or “yoch” with the “ch” like that in “loch”).  Yogh looks like “Ȝ” in its upper case form, with “ȝ” as its lower case.  This letter’s pronunciation was quite hard to find, as I had to sift through (i.e. ignore) lots of strange sounding terms that only linguistics students are fond of.  Finally, I found out that yogh was used as a “g” (as in “bag”), and as a “y” sound that’s written as a “j” (as in “Jarlsberg” – which is an excellent Norwegian cheese for those of you unfamiliar with it).

So, there you have it, four abandoned letters from English.

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