English alphabet

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The modern English alphabet is a Latin alphabet consisting of 26 letters (uppercase or lowercase) – the same letters that are found in the ISO basic Latin alphabet:

Majuscule forms (also called uppercase or capital letters)
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
Minuscule forms (also called lowercase or small letters)
a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z

The exact shape of printed letters varies depending on the typeface. The shape of handwritten letters can differ significantly from the standard printed form (and between individuals), especially when written in cursive style. See the individual letter articles for information about letter shapes and origins (follow the links on any of the uppercase letters above).

Written English uses a number of digraphs, such as ch, sh, th, ph, wh, etc., but they are not considered separate letters of the alphabet. Some traditions also use two ligatures, æ and œ,[1] or consider the ampersand (&) part of the alphabet.

(Listen to a Received Pronunciation British English speaker recite the English alphabet)

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History[edit]

Old English[edit]

The English language was first written in the Anglo-Saxon futhorc runic alphabet, in use from the 5th century. This alphabet was brought to what is now England, along with the proto-form of the language itself, by Anglo-Saxon settlers. Very few examples of this form of written Old English have survived, these being mostly short inscriptions or fragments

The Latin script, introduced by Christian missionaries, began to replace the Anglo-Saxon futhorc from about the 7th century, although the two continued in parallel for some time. Futhorc influenced the emerging English alphabet by providing it with the letters thorn (Þ þ) and wynn (Ƿ ƿ). The letter eth (Ð ð) was later devised as a modification of dee (D d), and finally yogh (Ȝ ȝ) was created by Norman scribes from the insular g in Old English and Irish, and used alongside their Carolingian g.

The a-e ligature ash (Æ æ) was adopted as a letter its own right, named after a futhorc rune æsc. In very early Old English the o-e ligature ethel (Œ œ) also appeared as a distinct letter, likewise named after a rune, œðel[citation needed]. Additionally, the v-v or u-u ligature double-u (W w) was in use.

In the year 1011, a monk named Byrhtferð recorded the traditional order of the Old English alphabet.[2] He listed the 24 letters of the Latin alphabet (including ampersand) first, then 5 additional English letters, starting with the Tironian note ond () an insular symbol for and:

A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X Y Z & ⁊ Ƿ Þ Ð Æ

Modern English[edit]

In the orthography of Modern English, thorn (þ), eth (ð), wynn (ƿ), yogh (ȝ), ash (æ), and ethel (œ) are obsolete. Latin borrowings reintroduced homographs of ash and ethel into Middle English and Early Modern English, though they are not considered to be the same letters[citation needed] but rather ligatures, and in any case are somewhat old-fashioned. Thorn and eth were both replaced by th, though thorn continued in existence for some time, its lowercase form gradually becoming graphically indistinguishable from the minuscule y in most handwriting. Y for th can still be seen in pseudo-archaisms such as "Ye Olde Booke Shoppe". The letters þ and ð are still used in present-day Icelandic and Faroese. Wynn disappeared from English around the 14th century when it was supplanted by uu, which ultimately developed into the modern w. Yogh disappeared around the 15th century and was typically replaced by gh.

The letters u and j, as distinct from v and i, were introduced in the 16th century, and w assumed the status of an independent letter, so that the English alphabet is now considered to consist of the following 26 letters:

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

The variant lowercase form long s (ſ) lasted into early modern English, and was used in non-final position up to the early 19th century.

The ligatures æ and œ were until the 19th century (slightly later in USA) used in formal writing for certain words of Greek or Latin origin, such as encyclopædia and cœlom, although such ligatures were not used in either classical Latin or ancient Greek. These are now rendered as "ae" and "oe" in all types of writing, although in American English, a lone e has mostly supplanted both (for example, encyclopedia for encyclopaedia, and fetus for foetus).

Several people have proposed alternative scripts for written English -- mostly extending or replacing the basic English alphabet -- such as the Deseret alphabet, the Shavian alphabet, Gregg shorthand, English Braille, etc.

Diacritics[edit]

Diacritic marks mainly appear in loanwords such as naïve and façade. As such words become naturalised In English, there is a tendency to drop the diacritics, as has happened with old borrowings such as hôtel, from French. Informal English writing tends to omit diacritics because of their absence from the keyboard, while professional copywriters and typesetters tend to include them. Words that are still perceived as foreign tend to retain them; for example, the only spelling of soupçon found in English dictionaries (the OED and others) uses the diacritic. Diacritics are also more likely to be retained where there would otherwise be confusion with another word (for example, résumé rather than resume), and, rarely, even added (as in maté, from Spanish yerba mate, but following the pattern of café, from French).

Occasionally, especially in older writing, diacritics are used to indicate the syllables of a word: cursed (verb) is pronounced with one syllable, while cursèd (adjective) is pronounced with two. È is used widely in poetry, e.g. in Shakespeare's sonnets. Similarly, while in chicken coop the letters -oo- represent a single vowel sound (a digraph), in obsolete spellings such as zoölogist and coöperation, they represent two. An acute, grave or diaeresis may also be placed over an 'e' at the end of a word to indicate that it is not silent, as in saké. However, these devices are often not used even where they would serve to alleviate some degree of confusion.

Ampersand[edit]

The & has sometimes appeared at the end of the English alphabet, as in Byrhtferð's list of letters in 1011.[2] Historically, the figure is a ligature for the letters Et. In English and many other languages it is used to represent the word and and occasionally the Latin word et, as in the abbreviation &c (et cetera).

Apostrophe[edit]

The apostrophe, while not considered part of the English alphabet, is used to abbreviate English words. A few pairs of words, such as its (belonging to it) and it's (it is or it has), were (plural of was) and we're (we are), and shed (to get rid of) and she'd (she would or she had) are distinguished in writing only by the presence or absence of an apostrophe. The apostrophe also distinguishes the possessive endings -'s and -s' from the common plural ending -s, a practice introduced in the 18th century; before, all three endings were written -s, which could lead to confusion (as in, the Apostles words).

Letter names[edit]

The names of the letters are rarely spelled out, except when used in derivations or compound words (for example tee-shirt, deejay, emcee, okay, aitchless, wye-level, etc.), derived forms (for example exed out, effing, to eff and blind, etc.), and in the names of objects named after letters (for example em (space) in printing and wye (junction) in railroading). The forms listed below are from the Oxford English Dictionary. Vowels stand for themselves, and consonants usually have the form consonant + ee or e + consonant (e.g. bee and ef). The exceptions are the letters aitch, jay, kay, cue, ar, ess (but es- in compounds ), wye, and zed. Plurals of consonants end in -s (bees, efs, ems) or, in the cases of aitch, ess, and ex, in -es (aitches, esses, exes). Plurals of vowels end in -es (aes, ees, ies, oes, ues); these are rare. Of course, all letters may stand for themselves, generally in capitalized form (okay or OK, emcee or MC), and plurals may be based on these (aes or As, cees or Cs, etc.)

Letter Letter name Pronunciation
A a /ˈeɪ/[3]
B bee /ˈbiː/
C cee /ˈsiː/
D dee /ˈdiː/
E e /ˈiː/
F ef (eff as a verb) /ˈɛf/
G gee /ˈdʒiː/
H aitch /ˈeɪtʃ/
haitch[4] /ˈheɪtʃ/
hetch[5] /ˈhetʃ/
I i /ˈaɪ/
J jay /ˈdʒeɪ/
jy[6] /ˈdʒaɪ/
K kay /ˈkeɪ/
L el or ell /ˈɛl/,[ˈɛɫ]
M em /ˈɛm/
N en /ˈɛn/
O o /ˈəʊ/
P pee /ˈpiː/
Q cue[7] /ˈkjuː/
R ar /ˈɑː/
ar /ˈɑr/(mainly North America)[8]
S ess (es-)[9] /ˈɛs/
T tee /ˈtiː/
U u /ˈjuː/
V vee /ˈviː/
W double-u /ˈdʌbəl.juː/[10]
X ex /ˈɛks/
Y wy or wye /ˈwaɪ/
Z zed[11] /ˈzɛd/
zee[12] /ˈziː/
izzard[13] /ˈɪzərd/

Some groups of letters, such as pee and bee, or em and en, are easily confused in speech, especially when heard over the telephone or a radio communications link. Spelling alphabets such as the ICAO spelling alphabet, used by aircraft pilots, police and others, are designed to eliminate this potential confusion by giving each letter a name that sounds quite different from any other.

Etymology[edit]

The names of the letters are for the most part direct descendents, via French, of the Latin (and Etruscan) names. (See Latin alphabet: Origins.)

Letter Latin Old French Middle English Modern English
A á /aː/ /aː/ /aː/ /eɪ/
B /beː/ /beː/ /beː/ /biː/
C /keː/ /tʃeː/ > /tseː/ > /seː/ /seː/ /siː/
D /deː/ /deː/ /deː/ /diː/
E é /eː/ /eː/ /eː/ /iː/
F ef /ɛf/ /ɛf/ /ɛf/ /ɛf/
G /ɡeː/ /dʒeː/ /dʒeː/ /dʒiː/
H /haː/ > /aha/ > /akːa/ /aːtʃ/ /aːtʃ/ /eɪtʃ/
I í /iː/ /iː/ /iː/ /aɪ/
J /dʒeɪ/
K /kaː/ /kaː/ /kaː/ /keɪ/
L el /ɛl/ /ɛl/ /ɛl/ /ɛl/
M em /ɛm/ /ɛm/ /ɛm/ /ɛm/
N en /ɛn/ /ɛn/ /ɛn/ /ɛn/
O ó /oː/ /oː/ /oː/ /oʊ,əʊ/
P /peː/ /peː/ /peː/ /piː/
Q /kuː/ /kyː/ /kiw/ /kjuː/
R er /ɛr/ /ɛr/ /ɛr/ > /ar/ /ɑː(r),ɑr/
S es /ɛs/ /ɛs/ /ɛs/ /ɛs/
T /teː/ /teː/ /teː/ /tiː/
U ú /uː/ /yː/ /iw/ /juː/
V /viː/
W /ˈdʌbəl.juː/
X ex /ɛks, iks/ /iks/ /ɛks/ /ɛks/
Y /hyː, iː/
í graeca /iː ˈɡraɪka/
ui, gui ?
i grec /iː ɡrɛːk/
/wiː/ ? /waɪ/
Z zéta /zeːta/ zed /zɛːd/
et zed /et zeːd/ > /e zed/
/zɛd/
/ɛˈzɛd/
/zɛd, ziː/
/ˈɪzərd/

The regular phonological developments (in rough chronological order) are:

  • palatalization before front vowels of Latin /k/ successively to /tʃ/, /ts/, and finally to Middle French /s/. Affects C.
  • palatalization before front vowels of Latin /ɡ/ to Proto-Romance and Middle French /dʒ/. Affects G.
  • fronting of Latin /uː/ to Middle French /yː/, becoming Middle English /iw/ and then Modern English /juː/. Affects Q, U.
  • the inconsistent lowering of Middle English /ɛr/ to /ar/. Affects R.
  • the Great Vowel Shift, shifting all Middle English long vowels. Affects A, B, C, D, E, G, H, I, K, O, P, T, and presumably Y.

The novel forms are aitch, a regular development of Medieval Latin acca; jay, a new letter presumably vocalized like neighboring kay to avoid confusion with established gee (the other name, jy, was taken from French); vee, a new letter named by analogy with the majority; double-u, a new letter, self-explanatory (the name of Latin V was ū); wye, of obscure origin but with an antecedent in Old French wi; zee, an American leveling of zed by analogy with the majority; and izzard, from the Romance phrase i zed or i zeto "and Z" said when reciting the alphabet.

Phonology[edit]

Main article: English phonology

The letters A, E, I, O, and U are considered vowel letters, since (except when silent) they represent vowels; the remaining letters are considered consonant letters, since when not silent they generally represent consonants. However, Y commonly represents vowels as well as a consonant (e.g., "myth"), as very rarely does W (e.g., "cwm"). Conversely, U and I sometimes represent a consonant (e.g., "quiz" and "onion" respectively).

W and Y are sometimes referred as semivowels.

Letter numbers and frequencies[edit]

Main article: Letter frequency

The letter most frequently used in English is E. The least frequently used letter is Z.

The list below shows the frequency of letter use in a particular sample of English,[vague] although the frequencies vary somewhat according to the type of text.[14]

N Letter Frequency
1 A 8.17%
2 B 1.49%
3 C 2.78%
4 D 4.25%
5 E 12.70%
6 F 2.23%
7 G 2.02%
8 H 6.09%
9 I 6.97%
10 J 0.15%
11 K 0.77%
12 L 4.03%
13 M 2.41%
14 N 6.75%
15 O 7.51%
16 P 1.93%
17 Q 0.10%
18 R 5.99%
19 S 6.33%
20 T 9.06%
21 U 2.76%
22 V 0.98%
23 W 2.36%
24 X 0.15%
25 Y 1.97%
26 Z 0.07%

See also[edit]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ See also the section on Ligatures
  2. ^ a b Michael Everson, Evertype, Baldur Sigurðsson, Íslensk Málstöð, On the Status of the Latin Letter Þorn and of its Sorting Order
  3. ^ Sometimes /æ/ in Hiberno-English
  4. ^ sometimes in Australian and Irish English, and usually in Indian English (although often considered incorrect)
  5. ^ sometomes in Malaysian English
  6. ^ in Scottish English
  7. ^ One of the few letter names not to contain the letter in question. Qu ~ que is obsolete, being attested from the 16th century.
  8. ^ /ˈɔr/ (/ˈɔər/?) in Hiberno-English[citation needed]
  9. ^ in compounds such as es-hook
  10. ^ Especially in American English, the /l/ is not often pronounced in informal speech. (Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed). Common colloquial pronunciations are /ˈdʌbəjuː/, /ˈdʌbəjə/, and /ˈdʌbjə/, as in the nickname "Dubya", especially in terms like www.
  11. ^ in British and Commonwealth English
  12. ^ in American English
  13. ^ in Scottish English
  14. ^ Beker, Henry; Piper, Fred (1982). Cipher Systems: The Protection of Communications. Wiley-Interscience. p. 397.  Table also available from Lewand, Robert (2000). Cryptological Mathematics. The Mathematical Association of America. p. 36. ISBN 978-0883857199.  and [1]