The History of the English Alphabet
The History of the English Alphabet
An alphabet is a collection of symbols used to spell out words. In an alphabet, each symbol represents a phoneme, or a unit of sound. The Egyptians were the first people to use symbols to represent sounds, but their hieroglyphics aren’t an example of a true alphabet, because each symbol represented a group of phonemes, or even an entire word.
The first true alphabet was used almost four thousand years ago, in the ancient land of Canaan. This alphabet used between twenty-two and thirty-two letters depending on the time period, but there weren’t any vowels. People had term paper writing to guess what vowel sound followed each consonant, based on what the word looked like. Despite this shortcoming, the Canaanite alphabet was very useful because it replaced the complex system of Egyptian hieroglyphics. People didn’t have to memorise thousands of different symbols, and this made it easy for anyone to learn to write.
A tribe called the Phoenicians took the Canaanite alphabet to Greece, and the Greeks improved it by adding vowels. The Greek alphabet was the first true phonetic alphabet, which means that it had a letter to represent every phoneme in the language. The Greeks later took this alphabet to Italy, where it evolved into the Latin alphabet. The Latin alphabet was used by the Roman Empire, and is very similar to many modern alphabets.
The Evolution of the English Alphabet
The English alphabet evolved after the Romans took the Latin language to England, which was controlled by the Anglo-Saxons. The Anglo-Saxons were a Germanic tribe who spoke Old English. They used a much older alphabet called Futhorc, or the runic alphabet. In Old English, the word ‘rune’ meant ‘dark, mysterious statement,’ while in Old High German, the word meant ‘a secret conversation.’ Writing was closely associated with magic by the Germanic tribes.
The modern English alphabet evolved from a combination of the Latin alphabet and the Old English runic alphabet. A number of runes were included in the English alphabet, including the rune ‘thorn,’ which was written as ‘þ,’ and the rune ‘wynn’ which was written as ‘ƿ.’ The letter thorn made a ‘th’ sound, and the letter wynn made a ‘w’ sound. At the time there was no ‘w’ in the Latin alphabet. During the Middle Ages, people gradually stopped using the old runes, and thorn was replaced by ‘th,’ while wynn was replaced by ‘uu.’ The ‘uu’ later became the modern letter ‘w.’
Later in the Middle Ages, the letters ‘u’ and ‘j’ were added to the English alphabet. This brought the alphabet up to its modern total of twenty-six letters, although as late as the nineteenth century, the combinations ‘æ’ and ‘ œ,’ as well as the symbol ‘&’ were often included when writing out the alphabet.
The Modern English Alphabet
The modern English alphabet is similar or identical to the alphabets used in most European countries. The only difference between the English and Spanish alphabets is that the Spanish alphabet includes the letter ‘ñ.’ In English, the same sound is made by the combination ‘ny.’
As opposed to the Spanish alphabet, the English alphabet is not completely phonetic. English has more phonemes than Spanish, as a result of borrowing sounds and words from many different languages. The English alphabet uses combinations of letters to represent phonemes. For example, the ‘sh’ in ‘ship’ makes a different sound than either ‘s’ or ‘h.’ The letters ‘tch’ in ‘ditch,’ represent a phoneme that is slightly different than the sound made by the ‘ch’ in ‘cheese.’ Because of these peculiarities, it can be difficult for people to learn how to pronounce written English. Even native English speakers will make mistakes when they come across unfamiliar words.
The diversity of English spellings is a sign of the richness of the English language. English has a large vocabulary, and has been influenced by many other languages. With practice, anyone can learn the rules and exceptions that govern English pronunciation, and take one step closer to becoming fluent in a complex and beautiful language.