On the Al Fun Bit (Alphabet)

By Anne K. Kaler

One of the first bits of knowledge a child must learn is the alphabet. In English there are 26 letters to remember and often they are sung in an easy-to-remember rhyme.

Did you know that there were several more letters than the familiar 26 that you committed to memory? Yep, there are at least three retirees from the alphabet hall of fame that I would like to introduce you to today. Meet THORN, WYNN, and &.

Let’s start with the THORN. The Nordic language was written in runes which are stick-like scratchings etched on stone. (Cursive writing came much later when the hollow ends of feather could be sharpened into a point to transfer ink onto an animal hide.) The THORN looked like a stick with a branch sticking out of it, rather like the thorn on a rose bush. Its pronunciation came from the peculiar sound produced when the tongue is thrust between the teeth just before a vowel sound. Try to say THORN without sticking your tongue out to test this. Latin or Romance speakers have problems pronouncing words starting with the “th” sound and this gives rise to the Brooklynese accent of the “dese, dem and dose guys. Philadelphians have a similar problem.

The WYNN sound was preserved in the “w” in our modern alphabet. Say it out loud and you can recognize that it is, indeed, a double-u: that is, the WYNN is two “u”s joined together to make that whooshing sound formed when your lips are open a bit forming one “u” over another “u”. Once again, some other languages do not have that sound and often pronounce a “w” as a “v” whose lip formation requires you to bite your lower lip before issuing the vowel sound. In the Pennsylvania Dutch language, an offshoot of German, words beginning with “w” often turn into a strong “v” sound such as “vat” for “what” and “vere” for “where”.

But the most amazing loss of an alphabet sound is in the ancient transformation of the last letter of the old alphabet – the “&”. Yes, that “&” mark is a word, or more correctly, was a series of words. In Latin, the word for “and” was “et” which was written in a symbol similar to a “&” on its side. That “&” was spoken at the very end of the alphabet as the phrase “and as per se ‘and’”. It actually says “also/and as itself ‘and’”. The word (or symbol) for “&” was the entire word “and” which is, of course, a conjunction joining two ideas, phrases or words and the last letter of the alphabet at that time. Now run those five words together in quick speech and you have the name for this mysterious letter — an ampersand or &.

And then there is the confusion of “i”, “j”, and “y” over the years. Most of the problems with these three letters have been solved and they each hold a solid place in English as it is taught and spoken now. The “y” which we see in signs of Old English such as “Ye Olde Bakerie Shoppe” is a short form for the thorn sound “th”. Thus, “the” bakery shop is pronounced as our familiar article “the”. What happened to “olde”? Why does it have that extra “e” on the end? That “silent ‘e’” is a way of telling people to pronounce the interior vowel “o” as a “long ‘o’” as in “sold” or “bold”.

The silent “e” still exists on many words to warn speakers about the long vowel inside the word. Take, for example, the word “hop” with its short “o” sound and add an “e” and the result is an entirely different idea – “hope”. Want another problem with these words? Try putting an “ing” ending on each word and “hop” must double its final consonant to become “hopping” while “hope” loses the “e” to become “hoping”.

See me go “hopping” off to another blog while I am still “hoping” to finish this one. I “hope” that you too will “hop” to your writing.

2 thoughts on “On the Al Fun Bit (Alphabet)

  1. Enjoyed this post. I only knew part of the information provided. Learning something new every day – wonderful!


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