The modern English alphabet has come a long way from its Greek and Latin roots and has lost some of its letters along the way.
The Old English alphabet included letters that came from Runic alphabets, the Gothic language, Old Norse, and regional accents. The alphabet was adapted and standardised across ancient Europe thanks to the Romans but still a handful of the old letters remained until only last century.
Some adapted letters became ligatures, where two letters are combined to create one, like æ which is still used in Danish today, while in modern British English the letters were separated, and in US English one letter is abandoned completely. Example: diarrhœa has become diarrhea in US English.
As most readers and language lovers know, words and alphabets will continue to adapt and evolve, but for now let’s have a look at the letters we have left behind so far.
Thorn or þorn (Þ, þ) was used in the Old English, Gothic, Old Norse, Old Swedish, and still exists in modern Icelandic alphabets.
The letter originated from the rune ᚦ in the Elder Fuþark and was called thorn in the Anglo-Saxon.
If you have ever seen the phrase “Ye Olde Tavern” you may be mistaken to think it is pronounced with a Y sound, however the printing presses at the time did not have a ‘thorn’ letter so used Y instead- it should still be pronounced as a ‘th’ sound.
Eth (uppercase: Ð, lowercase: ð) is similar to thorn, and was used in Old English, Middle English, and Icelandic.
Eth is pronounced as sort a hard ‘th’ sound, as if ‘th’ and ‘d’ combined. It has also been used by some in written Welsh and normally represented as dd.
Not much is know as to why it was abandoned but scholars stopped using it near the end of the Middle Ages.
Æ (lower: æ) is a ligature formed from the letters a and e. It is still used in some languages, including Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic, but in US English the ‘a’ was removed and the ‘e’ remained in the majority of words.
The International Phonetic Alphabet uses the symbol to represent the hard “a” sound in the English word “cat”.
When it was a part of the Old English Latin alphabet, it was called æsc (“ash tree”) after the Anglo-Saxon futhorc rune ᚫ.
Insular G is a form of the letter g somewhat resembling a tailed z, used in the medieval insular script of Great Britain and Ireland.
It was first used in the Roman Empire in Roman cursive, then it appeared in Irish script, passed into Old English, and then developed into the Middle English/Old Scots letter yogh (Ȝ ȝ).
A turned version of insular g (Ꝿ ꝿ) was used by William Pryce to designate the velar nasal ŋ, as in sing.
Ethel Œ (œ) is a ligature of o and e used in medieval and early modern Latin.
It is supposed to represent the ‘e’ sound as in amoeba.
A number of words written with œ were borrowed from French, and from Latin into modern English, where the œ is either separated (foetus) or one letter removed like in modern American English spelling (fetus).
Wynn (Ƿ ƿ) can also be spelled wen, ƿynn, or ƿen and is a letter of the Old English alphabet, where it is used to represent the ‘w’ sound.
Early Old English texts represented this phoneme with the digraph ⟨uu⟩ but to save confusion scribes used the rune wynn ᚹ.
It remained a standard letter throughout the Anglo-Saxon era until circa 1300 when it was replaced with ⟨uu⟩ once again, which then evolved into the modern ‘W’.