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How Did English Alfabets come into existence?

by William Reid

It is crucial to understand the origin of English alfabets because it allows you to know how many alphabets are in English and why it is so. 

Alphabet is a compound word derived from the Greek language. It perfectly explains the embodiment of the origin of English alphabets and their essence. Various languages’ elements have contributed to shaping the English alfabets into its modern form. The 26-letter structure is the final outcome of English alphabets’ different processes and transformations.

English alfabets

What does the term Alphabet mean?

The word alphabet came from two Phoenician letters, “Aleph” and “Beth.”Although some languages have alphabets that are common in Latin, there are words that English also shares with multiple languages.

The Evolution of English Alfabets

Romans brought the Latin Language with them, to that area, when they arrived in Britain. During that era, Britain was under the power of a Germanic tribe (Anglo-Saxons) that used old English. People of that time used Futhorc, also known as older alphabets or runic alphabets.

a) Old English

The ideal combination of runic alphabets and Latin helped create the modernized English alfabets. Some inclusions from the runic language were “wynn,” making a w sound, even though the letter w was not present in Latin. Moreover, thorn with th-sound was also a great addition to the language of that time.

However, during the Middle Ages, when Britain ended with the old runes, they substituted the letter thorn with th, and the runic wynn became uu, later transformed to w. Moreover, during the same era, letters U and J also came into existence and made a total of 26-letters. Symbols were later added to them. The latest language facts reveal that during the 1800s, & or the Ampersand became the 27th letter of the English alphabet.

b) Middle English

In 1066 AD, Nomads conquered Britain. They used to work on Old English. However, clergy, nobility, and scholars spoke and wrote in Norman or Latin. After two eras of Norman rule, English writing became common. However, some old English alphabets were removed from the script.

c) Modern English

During the 15th Century, William Caxton added a printing press in Great Britain. During this time, English was standardized. Using the language interchangeably, the letters U and V were separated, and U became a vowel, whereas V was a consonant.

How Many Sounds There Are in English?

English alfabets

More than 40 different sounds of phonemes are present in English. Since there are only 26 letters in the language, more than one sound is attached to some letters. For example, the consonant C has different pronunciations in these three words: cook, chop, and city.  

Dialects in the English Language

You may find different dialects of the English language while traveling the world. There is an impressive list of English dialects representing other parts of the world to ensure that English alfabets are not only used in their standard form. The primary forms of native English dialects include Canadian English, North American English, and Australian English. Since Great Britain or the United States influenced many countries, they have developed unique dialects such as Hiberno-English dialects, Indian English, or Philippine English. Usually, the difference in the different dialects is not due to varying numbers of English alphabets but because of the pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar.

How Many Letters Are there and What is it Exactly?

Every language has a different number of letters that help the native write or speak the language. There are 13-letters in Hawaiian Braille alphabets. However, the number of the alphabet is different in French and German, which is 26-letters each.

The modern world is aware of the 26-letters in the English alphabet since English has become one of the most commonly spoken languages worldwide. Most of us do not know how many alphabets were in old English and how the language came into existence. However, the story of its existence is intriguing and discusses the different transformations the letters underwent before they took their final shape.

Each English Alfabet has a different story and purpose. Let us go through each letter to understand how the letters came into existence and what their story is.

  • Letter A – According to the linguists, the origin of the letter A dates back to the Egyptian hieroglyphs, mainly where it represents the ox head. Later, it came into notice that the letter A in the Phoenician alphabet served as the basis for Latin and Greek, where it got its inverted shape.
  • Letter B – The current shape of the letter B came from the Egyptian pictogram signifying “shelter,” from the Elder Futhark, and adaptations from the Romans and Greeks.
  • Letter C – The letter C has a Phoenician origin and has a different shape with an angle. However, the letter came into English in Latin.
  • Letter D – According to the experts, the letter D was inspired by the Egyptian hieroglyph signifying door and later developed in the Semitic letter Dalet, borrowed from Latin and Greek alphabets.
  • Letter E. Like multiple English alfabets, the letter E also came into English through Latin alphabets that took on the Greek letter Epsilon, deriving from Semitic. The original Egyptian hieroglyph has a man with raised hands that later turned into the current form of the letter.
  • Letter F– TheGreeks adopted the Phoenician letter Waw, but it had a different sound. Therefore, the letter was changed into /f/ when Romans used Greek letters, allowing English to adopt the letter F.
  • Letter G – The letter G appeared in Rome in 200 – 300 BCE after the Romans adopted it from Greek alphabets. 
  • Letter H – The letter H also entered English like many other English alfabets. The alphabet came from Egyptian hieroglyph representing”fence” through Semitic, later Phoenician, and then Latin and Greek writing systems.
  • Letter I – The letter has transformed from the Greek alphabet into iota. The current shape of the letter is a straight line similar to the Etruscan one.
  • Letter J – The letter came into existence a long time back. The letter came into its original form under the influence of French and Spanish. In 1640 the letter came into its print form.
  • Letter K – Another letter came from the Egyptian hieroglyphs representing the hand. The letter entered English through Latin that borrowed from Greek’s letter Kappa.
  • Letter L – This letter was brought to English by the Romans, who adopted it from Phoenicians through Greek alphabets. 
  • Letter M – The letter represented the concept of water in the Egyptian hieroglyphs. The current form of the letter did not change since Roman rule.
  • Letter N – The letter represented a snake in the Egyptian hieroglyph with a different sound. The letter came a long way through Phoenician, Greek, Arabic, and Latin alphabets until it took its current shape.
  • Letter O – It did not change its current shape since the original Egyptian hieroglyph appeared as an eye and showed the same concept.
  • Letter P – This letter appeared differently in Semitic, and the current shape changed that Romans later developed. The Greek letter Pi has a similar sound and looks like the modern Cyrillic alphabet.
  • Letter Q – The letter sounded like qoph, translated into a wool ball. The letter was initially written like a circle with a line passing over. However, in 520 BC, Roman inscriptions showed the letter as we have it now.
  • Letter R.  Again, thanks to the Romans who adopted the letter R from the Phoenicians and brought it to English.
  • Letter S – Romans brought the letter into English by adopting it from the Greek letter Sigma (Σ) and later changing its form to what it is now. 
  • Letter T – It had a similar shape and represented the same sound in Phoenician, Greek, Etruscan, and Latin alphabets.
  • Letter U, V, and Y – Similar to F, these three letters also have the exact origin of the Phoenician alphabet and the Waw. Initially, in 1000 BC, The initial U looked like Y. However, the Romans used U and V interchangeably.
  • Letter W came into existence as a separate letter from the digraph VV commencing in the 14th century and the process ended in the 17th century.
  • Letter X – Although Greek came into existence, Roman brought it into English.
  • Letter Z – Romans borrowed the letter Zeta from Greek, which later came into English as Z.

Why Is It Crucial to Learn the History Behind English Letters?

Other than developing memory and learning skills, it is crucial to study the history of the origin of English alfabets to have more profound knowledge about the world around us because each letter of the English alphabet came from different cultural influences and complicated historical processes.

Learning a language without understanding its origin and story does not complete the learning process. Therefore, to know about the language learning process, one must understand the history of its letters and how they came into existence. Furthermore, knowing how many alphabets are there and how they took their shape is critical. 

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