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What English Could Have Looked Like

Updated on December 6, 2013
The Fuþark runic alphabet
The Fuþark runic alphabet | Source

Of course the title 'What English Could Have Looked Like' may be somewhat misleading, as a series of factors and cultures have led to the vast changes and developments within the English language over the centuries, generating what is perhaps an unparalleled richness and diversity. To discount these changes or to even imagine a world in which they didn't take place seems largely futile, and so perhaps a more accurate description of my article would be, 'What English Once Looked Like and How it Might Still Look Had No Changes Occurred' - Hmm, not a very engaging title, so I'll leave it as it is currently and assume that you all see my point. English is now written using the Latin Alphabet - similar to many other languages around the world, and therefore quite a comfort when it comes to the arduous yet highly beneficial task of language learning. This Latinisation is a product of the arrival of Christian Missionaries and Normans who, already using and cherishing the Latin alphabet, slowly succeeded in converting the Anglo Saxon runes into letters with which we're familiar today. Despite this, a number of letters that may seem entirely foreign to many modern English speakers were once in vogue. What are these odd letters that used to form an integral part of the proto-English that would be virtually unrecognisable to English speakers today, you ask? Let's have a look!

Runic letter thurisaz
Runic letter thurisaz | Source
Thorn with crossed ascender - abbreviation of the word 'that'
Thorn with crossed ascender - abbreviation of the word 'that' | Source

Thorn (Þ, þ)

This one might just be my personal favourite (although I couldn't tell you why). It was prevalent in Old English and Old Norse, and endured in some dialects into Middle English before its replacement with the familiar <th> letter combination, today restricting Thorn's existence to the Icelandic language, where it serves as a voiceless dental fricative (th as in the word thing). Thorn seems to have developed from the rune thurisaz or thurs ('giant'), used in the Elder Fuþark, the oldest form of the runic alphabet, and although ultimately replaced by the all too popular <th> digraph, it endured right into Middle English, albeit in varied forms. By the 1300s <th> was beginning to dominate the language, restricting the usage of þ to abbreviation. As its shape began to become less and less distinctive, it eventually became indistinguishable from the letter <y>, a rather necessary development considering that the printing fonts imported from Italy and Germany contained the letter <y>, but not Thorn. The conversion of þ to <y> explains the prevalence of stock phrases (often now used for archaic effect) such as 'Ye Olde', where the spelling has been developed from 'Þe Olde' and would be modernised into 'The Old'. Yes, that's right, it may come as a slight shock, but there is no y-sound in this type of archaic spelling. Thorn itself could stand as an abbreviation for the word 'that' when its ascender was crossed, a trend that continued even after the <y> format had been developed, with a <y> and a superscript <t> (yt) used to denote the word. Somewhat sadly, perhaps, <th> of course eventually won out, and Thorn was entirely replaced, left only to gallivant in modern Icelandic.


The letter eth
The letter eth | Source

Eth ( Ð, ð)

Eth is another letter that existed in Old English and just endured into Middle English before its removal from the language. Originating from an Irish letter, it today survives in Icelandic and Faroese, although it serves different purposes in these languages, for in the former it takes on the role of a voiced dental fricative (th as in the) and is never placed at the beginning of a word, whilst in the latter its uses are mostly etymological. In Old English, however, Eth could be used interchangeably with Thorn, perhaps accounting for its much quicker dismissal from the language. Indeed, in English Eth seems to have entirely fallen into disuse by the 1300s, although it does still occasionally appear as a mathematical symbol.

Gyfu rune that developed into yogh
Gyfu rune that developed into yogh | Source
Letter Yogh
Letter Yogh | Source

Yogh (Ȝ, ȝ)

Although it may look as though it hails from extremely primitive English, Yogh is, somewhat surprisingly, actually a Middle English letter that was modelled off of the Old English <g> (the Anglo-Saxon rune gyfu) to represent <y> and other velar (consonants formed with the back part of the tongue) sounds. It was used to similar effect in Older Scots, although in both languages came to be confused with the letter <z>, with Older Scots often substituting <z> for Yogh due to the latter's absence on printing fonts, and with English rendering <z> and ȝ indistinguishable considering the similarity between their written forms. With the introduction of a vast amount of Norman words following 1066, ȝ was implemented as a distinct letter from <g>, in order to consider the different sounds that had been introduced with the new words and with the reintroduction of the Carolingian (the French) <g> into the alphabet. The Normans, however, ever cherishing those Latin letters, endeavoured to replace ȝ with the familiar <gh> letter combination that still exists in words today, including night and wrought once written as niȝt and wrouȝte, whilst the Carolingian <g> took over as the sole letter <g>.

Ansuz/Æsc rune, on which Ash is modelled
Ansuz/Æsc rune, on which Ash is modelled | Source
Rune odan, on which Ethel is modelled
Rune odan, on which Ethel is modelled | Source

Ash (Æ, æ) and Ethel (Œ, œ)

Ash originally represented a Latin diphthong and was, in Old English, called æsc and modelled off this Anglo Saxon rune. It does, however, today exist as a letter in its own right in a number of alphabets, including Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic and Faroese. In English today, due to the difficulties of retaining the æ combination on modern keyboards, the two letters are often placed separately (as in archaeology instead of archæology), and the letter <a>, in some dialects, is occasionally dropped from the word altogether (as in medieval instead of mediæval). Ash has been reduced to sharing its segment with Ethel because, as I'm sure you've already noticed, the two have very similar properties, with the exception that Ethel is of course a ligature of <o> and <e> rather than <a> and <e>, and modelled not off the rune æsc, but rather off of odal. Like Ash, Ethel represented a diphthong in Latin, used to denote borrowed Greek words with the combination OI. Again, due to the problematic situation of representing Ethel in modern typography, the œ ligature is often reduced to simply an <e> in American English (as in fetus instead of fœtus and diarrhea instead of diarrhœa), whilst the œ is often retained, albeit separately, in British English (as in foetus and diarrhoea). Ethel now mostly appears stylistically in words directly borrowed from Latin, but does also make a limited appearance elsewhere, including French.

Wynn rune, on which wynn was modelled
Wynn rune, on which wynn was modelled | Source
Wynn
Wynn | Source

Wynn (Ƿ, ƿ)

Wynn was used in Old English to represent a <w> sound, as scribes, not entirely satisfied with their efforts to produce the sound by placing two 'u's' together, borrowed the wynn rune as a solution. Such a move was necessary because Latin had no letter to represent the <w> sound that was common in Old English, and as it also lacked the letter <u>, its improvisation by placing two 'v's' together no longer seemed adequate. Although Wynn seemed to solve the problem it was, likely due to the Norman distaste for foreign letters, abandoned around the 1300s, to be once again replaced with the <uu> combination, the letters of which would be later literally joined together and transformed into the letter <w>. As you may have noticed, it is due to the need to write <uu> as <vv> because of the absence of <u> within Latin, that <w> today resembles the joining of <vv> rather than <uu>.

Which Letter Do You Find the Most Interesting?

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    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 3 years ago from SW England

      I love Ash & Ethel; they sound like an old couple! I also love diphthongs and don't like that they're disappearing.

      I used to have fun with old runes when I taught dyslexics - they liked playing with 'funny' spelling and used them for writing codes. Great fun!

      Up, interesting and useful. An unusual hub - brilliant!