I think I know these 26 letters, but when I read through an index book, I am quite surprised that actually I don't know much about them.
is the first of the five vowels which are free, open sounds formed without the aid of any other letter. " A " has five different sounds, as in the words "mat," "gate," "hare," "car" and "fall." The symbol chosen for the sound by the ancient Egyptians was an eagle. The Phoenicians simplified the Egyptian figure into a sign suggesting our "A" turned on its side. The Greeks turned the symbol point upwards. It is one of the two letters of our alphabet used as a word in itself— the indefinite article.
is the first consonant of English language. By consonant is meant a letter which cannot be sounded by itself, but requires the aid of a vowel. In uttering B one has to use the lips, pressing them together. Hence B is called a labial, or lip letter, from the Latin labium = a lip. Moreover, the sound is stopped altogether for a moment, so B is also classed among the " mute " letters.
could be dispensed with, except where it is followed by H, as in " church " ; for in all other cases either K or S might be used instead. The Romans, it may be noted, gave C the sound of either G or K. When pronounced like K, as in " cat," C is said to be " hard " ; when like S, as in " city," to be " soft." In Roman numerals it stands for Centum = one hundred.
The Greek symbol for it was a triangle, called Delta. We have adopted this word for a triangular area of land enclosed by two branches of a river at its mouth and by the sea. D belongs to the group of letters called dentals because the teeth (Latin, dentes), or the gums near them, are used in pronouncing them ; and it is also one of the mute letters. The Romans used D to represent the number 500.
is the second of the five vowels, and the most frequently used letter. It has five different sounds in the words "me," "get," "England," "her," and " prey " ; and when placed at the end of a single-syllable word, such as "bate," " bite," " note," or " mute," lengthens the sound of the preceding vowel, though not sounded itself.
On compasses E stands for East.
The Greeks of classical times did not use letter F. Grammarians call F a spirant, or breathing letter, because the sound is produced by expelling the breath gently between the lower lip and the upper teeth.
We could do without F, since its sound can be equally well represented by PH, as in " elephant," " pheasant," and " photography."
is one of the gutturals, that is, the sounds in the utterance of which the throat (Latin, guttur) takes a part.
The letter is pronounced in English in two different ways. In " gentle " it is " soft " and unchecked, having the sound of J ; in " gun " and "gimlet" it is "hard," and the breath is arrested. Some words, such as "gnarled," "gnaw," and " resign," contain a G which is not sounded at all.
does not appear in the Greek alphabet, its place being taken by a " rough breathing," shaped like a comma turned the wrong way round and placed above the letter to which it belongs. But the Greeks used the symbol H—to represent the long E sound.
In English H is included among the aspirants or breathing consonants ; but in a few words, such as " hour " and " honest " it is not sounded. The dropping of H where it should be sounded, and the adding of it before a vowel where it is not wanted, is a not uncommon fault of speech.
The Greeks called it lota. Its commonest sound is short, as in " bit," " hit " and " sit." The long I is found in single-syllable words ending in E—"bite," "site," "write," etc. ; and when followed by gh or gn, as in " might " and " resign." The letter also has the sound of U in " dirt," and of long E in " machine." It is one of the two letters which by itself is an English word—the nominative case of the first personal pronoun. In Roman numerals it stands for the number one and for first ; and we have adopted it to serve the same purpose. Thus, William the First may be written William I.
is one of the two youngest, since, like U, it was added only about 300 years ago. The reason is that originally I was used for both the vowel and for this consonant ; but presently for convenience sake J, the ornamental form of I, was assigned to the consonant.
In many languages the letter is not sounded like our soft G, but like Y. Thus, the German word " Junker " is pronounced Yunker ; the Dutch " jas," yas ; and so on.
is one of the mute gutturals. It is formed by raising the tongue against the back of the palate, as you will discover if you make the sound.
The letter was used very little in Anglo-Saxon, but where it appeared it had the sound that it has now— that of a hard C. The Romans used it very seldom, and in modern Italian it does not appear at all. K becomes silent, or unpronounced, before N, as in " knave," " knee," " knight," or " knit."
is commonly called a liquid, that is, a consonant having a smooth-flowing sound, almost like that of a vowel. It is also called a dental sibilant, which description means a letter pronounced by bringing the tongue near the teeth and making a hissing sound. L is often silent before another consonant; as in "talk" "folk," "calm," and "Lincoln." In Roman numerals L stands for 50.
In pronouncing the sound which it stands for, one brings the lips together and allows the breath to escape through the nose. Hence it is called a labial (lip) nasal (nose) consonant. It is also one of the liquid consonants. In many words it is followed by B or P ; as in " lamb," " comb," "camp," " lamp " and " ramp." An M surrounded by a circle has some resemblance to the face of an owl, the bird chosen to represent the sound by the ancient Egyptians. The Romans used M for 1000.
is called a nasal-dental letter because both the nose and the teeth are used in sounding it. Like L, M and R, it is also a liquid, and able to make a syllable by itself, as in " often," pronounced of'n. When N comes at the end of a word, after M, as in " condemn " and " hymn," it is silent.
is pronounced by round ing the mouth and drawing the tongue back. It has four chief sounds, being long in " note " and " vote," short in " not " and " got " ; like short U in " son " ; and like AW in "off." The letter is often joined with I or U to make a diphthong ; and when doubled is equivalent to an open U. The Greeks had separate symbols for short O, which they called Omicron, or Little O, and for long O, which came at the end of their alphabet and had the name of Omega, or Big O.
is one of the labials, or lip letters, and closely related in sound to B. Whereas P is " hard," however, or pronounced with a sudden bursting-forth of the breath, B is "soft," that is uttered easily and gently. In many words which we get from the Greek, P is joined to H, the two letters together having the sound of F. The Greeks had no F, but they had one, Phi (PH), which took its place.
The early Greeks had a symbol for it, but the later Greeks dropped it. The Romans, however, took it into their alphabet and handed it down to us. We could do without this letter—it is not found in Anglo-Saxon—as its sound could be represented equally well by KW. The English Q is always followed by U, as in Latin and languages derived from it, with certain exceptions when a final Q is used and is then sounded like K.
belongs to the class of liquids. In pronouncing it the tongue is brought near the roof of the mouth, and ordinarily it is a short sound. The Scotch and Irish roll or trill it in a manner which generally shows the nationality of the speaker. In all words derived from the Greek —"rheumatism," "rheostat," "rhinoceros " and " Rhodes " are examples.
is a sibilant, or hiss ing letter. We make much use of it, employing it, among other things, as the plural ending in most cases. Foreigners say that English people hiss when they talk. S has two sounds : a soft sound, as in " sap " ; and a hard, or Z, sound, as in " nose." We find it followed by C in many words, the two being pronounced together like S alone, as in " scent," or like SK, as in " scanty" and " school."
Being sounded by bringing the tongue against the base of the upper teeth, it is classed among the dentals. It represents the " hard " sound corresponding to the "soft" sound of D. In many words it is silent or unpronounced : for example, in " often," " whistle " and " moisten." Combined with H it gives two different sounds—soft in " bathe," hard in " this." The letter is sometimes used to denote shape : as in T-square, T-iron, and T-beam. A thing is said to be " right to a T " if it is perfectly accurate or correct.
is the the last of the five vowels. The original sound of the letter in Anglo-Saxon—as in most European languages now—was oo : and we still so pronounce it in many words, among them " rule " and " June."
The Roman V represented both our V and our U, as being easy to carve on stone ; and not until the seventeenth century did U definitely be come one of our 26 letters.
is one of the spirants, or breathing letters. It is closely related to F, being the softer form of the sound of which F is the harder, or more explosive, form. We may note that a word ending in F, has the F changed into V in the plural ; as calf, calves. We have already noticed, under U, its connection with that letter. The Romans pronounced it W, and at one period it was frequently pronounced in that way in England. The Romans also used it to represent the number five or fifth.
does not appear in the Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese alphabets, and is little used in some other European languages. The German W is sounded like our V. The written capital is two V's joined together; but, as the name of the letter implies, the V's are really the old-fashioned U's. In many ornamental W's the two V's cross each other near the top. W is used as a vowel in " hew," " how," " pawl," where it forms a diphthong with a vowel, and even as a consonant — in " when " and " whip," for example—it is much like a vowel in sound. Before R it is silent ; and we do not sound it in "sword," "answer," and some other words.
is one of the least used. Every word in an English dictionary that begins with X is of foreign origin, and in most cases derived from the Greek.
We could dispense with X altogether, since at the beginning of words it could be replaced by Z, and in the middle or at the end of a word by KS. We could write " Xenophon " and " mix " as " Zenophon " and " miks," without altering the sounds of these words.
As a Roman numeral, X stands for 10.
is one of the sibilants. We use it both as a consonant, as in " year " and " yet " ; and as a vowel, as in " cry " and " deny."
It does not appear as a letter in the Greek alphabet, but our capital Y was used in that alphabet as the symbol for capital U.
Like X, and Y, it is used comparatively seldom. It is one of the sibilant or hissing letters, in some cases being almost a voiced " s " as in " zeal " or a voiced " sh " as in " azure." In some words such as " realize " an " s " is often substituted in its place and the word written as " realise." In German Z is pronounced TS, and this sound is given to it when we use German words as they stand, such as Zwingli, the name of a religious reformer of the sixteenth century. A person is said to know a subject from A to Z if he knows it from beginning to end, that is, very thoroughly.