Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Forgotten Letters

All of us who type solely in English are probably used to twenty six and only twenty six letters (some other languages get more, the lucky ducks), but as I’ve mentioned in several Language of Confusion posts, there have been tons of changes to the Latin alphabet over the years. Some letters have appeared out of nowhere (we’re all looking at you, J) and many have just disappeared.

These are their stories.

…I miss Law & Order.

Yogh (capital Ȝ, small ȝ, although it evolved over time much like other letters) came from an Old Irish form of the letter g. The pronunciation was a hard, throaty y-g sound, if that makes sense. Because it looked like a Z, a lot of words that were supposed to have yogh instead had a z. It’s how the name Mackenzie got its Z.

Thorn (capital Þ, small þ) is one of the old th sounds. It has a straightforward pronunciation, like th in math or thesaurus. The reason old timey signs say “ye” is because that y is supposed to be a thorn, making it “the”. It’s because thorn kind of looked like a y in some of its evolutions.

Eth or edh (capital Ð, small ð) is the other of the old th sounds. It’s pronunciation is much softer than thorn’s, more like if you barely said the th (compare how hard you th when you say the word “math” to when you say the word “this”).

Wynn or wen (capital Ƿ, small ƿ), from an old runic alphabet, is an old character for w back before w existed. When W showed up, wynn wasn’t cool anymore and faded into obscurity.

And there are plenty more where those came from, but I’ve bored you enough for today.



  1. I took a Medieval literature class in college one semester, and it turned out that everything we read was written in the original middle English.

    I was all, "Hey, that wasn't in the course description!"

    But it turned out to be a cool class.

  2. I recently started following Mental Floss on FB. They are hilarious.

  3. I remember the Dutch language sometimes uses ij in place of the y.

  4. Mental Floss makes my evenings. I've written about Norse gods and monsters and some of this seems familiar. You outdo me in research!! Sorry my duties as rare blood courier messed up my memory about my guest post. Sigh. I try. I really do. But sometimes I flup. Sorry. :-(

  5. What does a y-g sound sound like?

    So, you mean when you see in old timey writing a "ye" it's correct to pronounce it "the"?

    As for edh--that reminds me of a series of books I read a while back. The writer used "dd" to denote this letter. I think. I only equate the two because she said in the notes somewhere to pronounce it like the "th" in breathe.


Please validate me.