An interesting article crossed my desk yesterday, detailing a dozen “letters” that just didn’t make the cut for our modern Roman alphabet. Well, okay, it’s not that cut and dried. It’s not like there was a Council of Nicaea meeting on the alphabet. Most of these “lost letters” were in wide use at one time, but just fell out of favor.
You know some of them already. The friendly Ampersand (&) is the best known, and anyone who’s read a facsimile of our Declaration of Independence has snickered over the phrase “Purfuit of Happinefs,” wherein we find both the old “long s” and its surviving relation, the “short s.” (And now you know what to call that “effy” S-thing.)
Oddly, several others still survive in our super-modern world. Almost all of them still exist in the ANSI character map our computers use, and even HTML code preserves codes for:
- Thorn: Þ þ
- Ash: Æ æ (called “ligature ae”)
- Eth: Ð ð
- Ethel: Œ œ (called “ligature oe”)
Others I’ve run across, like the “that” (a thorn with a cross on the riser) in reading facsimiles of Shakespeare folios, but about half of them were completely new to me. Unlike the “lost punctuation” lists, most of these letters are of ancient pedigree, going back to Runic or Roman times.
My favorite, though, has always been the thorn. Part of that is my Inner Twelve-Year Old who giggles when using it to spell its name (i.e., Þorn). See what I mean?
Mostly, though, it’s because the thorn was used to spell the word “the”, as so: Þe. Well, in the handwriting of the day, the thorn looked a lot like the letter “y”, so when moveable type came around, publishers just started using the “y” in place of the thorn. It saved them a stack of money (and publishing has always been about money).
And so, when they wanted to print, say, “The Olde Curiosity Shoppe,” it looked like “Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe.” Which is why the article “ye” should always be pronounced “the” (but the pronoun “ye” is still “ye,” just to make things confusing… wouldn’t be English if it wasn’t confusing, right?)
Anyway, go explore the others (the yogh, the wynn, the Tironian ond, &c.) and enjoy!