History and the English Alphabet
When George Washington was a lad, he learned his alphabet, all twenty-seven letters. Back in the Eighteenth Century, the English alphabet still had twenty-seven letters. The alphabet didn’t end with Z, but with &. When reciting the alphabet, they would use a Latin phrase at the end, “Y, Z, and, per se, And.” According to some sources, this is how we got the word “Ampersand” was through millions of young kids running together “and, per se, And” while reciting their alphabet as fast as possible to get it over with.
When English was first written, though, it had twenty-four letters, not including several we know today, such as J or V or W. Because English was not Latin, when the English language was transliterated to the Latin alphabet, there were several sounds not represented, and as such, those founders of written English as we know it modified letters to represent sounds or they borrowed from the former alphabet that had represented English, the Futhorc system of runes. Thus English had letters that other languages did not. That caused problems several hundred years later. When the idea of movable-type printing first flowered in Europe, most of the printing was done in what we now call Germany by German people. English manuscripts would be sent off to Germany to be printed, and the German printers would have this sort of conversation:
Printer 1: “What is that squiggle?”
Printer 2: “Is it maybe a Y? Or is that a sloppy P?”
Printer 1: “Let’s try the Y and see what they say.”
Travel times were long and shipping rates expensive, so usually the English customers just rolled with it and said nothing. Printing presses were expensive. Movable type was expensive. Having a custom set of movable type made up to accommodate some language’s special letters was even more expensive.
Which is how we lost some of our letters, such as the Thorn (Þ, þ). Ever wondered why some things are named “Ye Olde” this or that? It’s because in some scripts, the thorn looked a lot more like a Y, and so “The” looked like “Ye.”
Another special letter was the Eth (Ð, ð). Eth was created with the Latin D with a stroke through it early on with English in the Latin alphabet. Like thorn, it represented the “TH” sound. While the two letters were not so distinguished back then, in Icelandic, the thorn and eth have come to distinguish the unvoiced and voiced versions of the labiodental fricative. That means thorn is used for the TH in, well, thorn, for instance, and eth is used to represent the TH in “there.” The two letters are sort of like the T and D, respectively, except for fricatives.
Or there was the Yogh. Now, the Yogh (Ȝ, ȝ) could represent three different sounds: y, as in year; a palatalized g before front vowels, as is no longer used in English; or the ch sound, used in German “Ach!” or Scottish “Och!” It also occasionally had a W sound. In fact, at one point, “yowling” was spelled with two yogh in place of the Y and W. In England, it was primarily replaced by “gh” in words like tough or night or thorough. In Scotland, it was often replaced by the letter Z, since a tailed-Z (ʒ) looked a lot like the yogh. This practice has left a lot of names of places and people that have a Z, but used to not be pronounced anything like having a Z, such as MacKenzie, originally MacKenȝie, which was pronounced more like Mack King Ye. (And no, that Y was not in place of the thorn.)
Another letter that existed, but has been replaced, was the wynn (Ƿ ƿ). Latin did not have a W sound or letter, so the early scholars borrowed the old wynn rune from the Futhorc. As one might see, this symbol, especially handwritten, could easily be mistaken for the P or the thorn.
Another letter was the Æsc or Ash (Æ, æ), which was a ligature of A and E and represented a sound like the “a” in “cat.” It was also borrowed from Latin, but has generally fallen out of favor.
That isn’t even to mention the long S (ſ). But that was only a variant of a letter, not a ſeparate and forgotten letter; ſtill, I would ſee it reſurrected.
There are a number of letters in English that are doing double or triple duty as the yogh once did. On the other hand, some letters are superfluous. Just as one instance, when one sees “TH” in a word, it could be the voiced fricative, the unvoiced fricative, or a foreign invader that is pronounced as if the H were not there, such as Neanderthal (Nay on dare tahl, bloody Germans). Then there is the G. Will it be G as in “Garage” or G as in “Garage?”
Then there are letters such as the J. J would not be so bad for that sound the G makes in some cases, were it used consistently. Maybe if we changed the spelling to “Garaj,” for instance. Then there would be a clear distinction between G and J and the people who pronounce GIF with a hard G would finally be right. But the other problem with J is that it is used differently in different languages. The IPA use for J is to make the sound that J makes in German, which is the Y sound. Many other Eastern and Northern European languages use the J in this manner. Then there is Spanish, where it makes an H or CH (x) sound. Then Portuguese and French agree with English that it sounds like our J. Or there is Basque, where J can represent whatever the speaker wants it to represent, including flatulence and eructations. The J simply cannot be trusted.
Then there is our friend the C. Is it hard, soft, or does it sound like CH, as in foreign words like “Cello” or words like “delicious” or “ocean.” “The cello sounded magical in the cellar.” Oh, dear. What do we do with that? It’s all rather confusing and makes English difficult to learn and to spell. Now, maybe that isn’t a bad thing. Let’s sort the men from the boys by having a tough and non-sensical language. I can understand that centiment.
The W is also a problem. Not necessarily because of us, but because of those foreigners. They abuse the W in all sorts of ways. For instance, the Welsh use it as a vowel and stick it into words such as “twp.” It’s a twp thing to do. And it’s pronounced like tup would be in English, if we had such a twp word. Then there are the Mainland Europeans. As with J, there is no telling what they will do. For instance, many pronounce it as a V. The Germans compound this by pronouncing the V as an F, making Volkswagen pronounced Folksvahgen. Bloody Huns. The French also usually pronounce the W as a V. They even call the letter double-V, rather than double-U. This led to a branch of my grandmother’s family changing the spelling of the family name so the bloody Frogs could pronounce it correctly. For Stewart, the French said “Stay-vart.” So, cousin Mary, Queen of Scotland by birth and France by marriage at the time, changed the spelling to “Stuart” so the Frogs could get it right.
We could bring back several of these letters and reassign some to be one sound instead of many.
Bring back þorn and eð to represent our TH sounds and give a clear distinction between the two.
We have S and K, so let C only represent the CH sound. We will have to cange spellings of words, like magik and kould or selebrate and serabellum. We wouldn’t have to cange cello, though.
The related sound, usually spelled with SH could be replaced by reviving the long S for the purpose. That ſould work well as a one-character replacement for the various spellings, such as SH, SCH, and SK being used today. (What? You didn’t know “ski” is pronounced the same as “she?” Bloody Norwegians.)
To designate the J sound in English, or soft G, let’s bring back the Yogh. Or we could go with the Ezh (long Z: Ʒ ʒ), which is what IPA uses for that sound anyway. Or perhaps we could use one for the dj sound and the other for the mere j, to correspond with the use of the C for CH and ſ for SH. The G would strictly be used for the hard G sound as in “Gal.” We would scrap the ambiguous and foreign J altogether.
An alternative would be to bring back the Yogh as the CH sound (Xi or /x/ by IPA symbology) as in foreign words like “Och!” or “Ach!” Personally, I want this sound back into English and fully represented. It’s a great sound.
Ƿe ƿould bring back the ƿynn to replace the foreign and ambiguous W.
Eliminating J and W and adding the old letters back in would give an alphabet of:
A B C D Ð E F G H I Ʒ (and or Ȝ) K L M N O P Q R S T Þ U V Ƿ X Y Z
A B C Ȝ D Ð E F G H I Ʒ K L M N O P Q R S T Þ U V Ƿ X Y Z
using the alternative of Yogh to represent the foreign CH (Xi or /x/).
This latter version would give us twenty-nine letters. If we add back in the &, we are up to an even thirty, which can be represented evenly in a number of configurations, such as 10×3 or 5×6. Thus, here is my new proposed alphabet for English:
A B C Ȝ D Ð E F G H I Ʒ K L M N O P Q R S T Þ U V Ƿ X Y Z &
There are some obvious drawbacks to the proposal.
The first is change. Almost nobody likes change when they are experiencing it, and some people take longer to adjust than others. It would probably take at least a generation for the changeover to be complete, just because some people would never get used to the new (really old) letters and spellings.
The second difficulty would be that historical spellings would become more difficult, since the sound values of the letters would have changed. Only historians of orthography would be delving into the ancient texts of the Twentieth Century to parse out what they mean, sort of like cursive writing is already.
The third possible difficulty might be distinguishing some of these characters from each other. For instance, the yogh, ezh, cursive Z, and the number 3 might be confusing, especially in hand-written works. Not that anyone writes by hand anymore. Everything is on computers or texted from phone keyboards.
Which brings up the very real fourth problem that keyboards and software would have to be adjusted for the new alphabet. Still, computers already have the ability to write and store the characters, as this essay has demonstrated.
The main benefit would be to create a simplified orthography for the English language with single characters to represent common sounds. The Cyrillic alphabet has single-letter equivalents of what we might express in up to four letters. Why shouldn’t English be able to express the sounds of TH, SH, and CH in single letters?
Obviously, I did not address some glaring problems, such as Q. Some may also say X, although from my perspective, X is acting as a double sound “KS,” which is used frequently in English. Perhaps Q could replace all “KW” sounds, so “queen” would become “qeen.” And “quick” would become “qik.” Have I missed anything else?
What changes would you like to see to our alphabet?
What changes would you like to see to English orthography?
Note 1: This is part of the Group Writing Project under January’s theme of the Winter of our Discontent. It is for 08 JAN 2020, which nobody had, so I didn’t even sign up for it until 18 JAN. My time machine is broken, so I couldn’t get it out on time.
Note 2: If you happen to have German, French, or Norwegian blood and are offended by the ethnic slurs above: tough it out. I’m descended from all three. Just wait until my next conversation, where I’ll slander the Irish, English, and Scots, because I am all of those, as well.
I remain respectfully yours,Published in