|c.1500 to present|
|ISO 15924||Latn (215), Latin|
|U+0000 to U+007E Basic Latin and punctuation|
The alphabet for Modern English is a Latin-script alphabet consisting of 26 letters, each having an upper- and lower-case form. The word alphabet is a compound of the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta. The alphabet originated around the 7th century to write Old English from Latin script. Since then, letters have been added or removed to give the current letters:
The exact shape of printed letters varies depending on the typeface (and font), and the standard printed form may differ significantly from the shape of handwritten letters (which varies between individuals), especially cursive.
The English alphabet has 5 vowels, 19 consonants, and 2 letters (Y and W) that can function as consonants or vowels.
The names of the letters are commonly spelled out in compound words and initialisms (e.g., tee-shirt, deejay, emcee, okay, etc.), derived forms (e.g., exed out, effing, to eff and blind, aitchless, etc.), and objects named after letters (e.g., en and em in printing, and wye in railroading). The spellings listed below are from the Oxford English Dictionary. Plurals of consonant names are formed by adding -s (e.g., bees, efs or effs, ems) or -es in the cases of aitches, esses, exes. Plurals of vowel names also take -es (i.e., aes, ees, ies, oes, ues), but these are rare. For a letter as a letter, the letter itself is most commonly used, generally in capitalized form, in which case the plural just takes -s or -'s (e.g. Cs or c's for cees).
|C||cee||cē||//||/keː/||/tʃeː/ > /tseː/
|H||aitch||hā||//||/haː/ > /ˈaha/
|R||ar||er||//||/ɛr/||/ɛr/||/ɛr/ > /ar/||5.99%|
|hȳ||//||/hyː/||ui, gui ?||/wiː/||1.97%|
|ī graeca||/iː ˈɡraɪka/||/iː ɡrɛːk/|
The names of the letters are for the most part direct descendants, via French, of the Latin (and Etruscan) names. (See Latin alphabet: Origins.)
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; izzard, from the Romance phrase i zed or i zeto "and Z" said when reciting the alphabet; and zee, an American levelling of zed by analogy with other consonants.
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.
The ampersand (&) has sometimes appeared at the end of the English alphabet, as in Byrhtferð's list of letters in 1011. & was regarded as the 27th letter of the English alphabet, as taught to children in the US and elsewhere. An example may be seen in M. B. Moore's 1863 book The Dixie Primer, for the Little Folks. Historically, the figure is a ligature for the letters Et. In English and many other languages, it is used to represent the word and, plus occasionally the Latin word et, as in the abbreviation &c (et cetera).
Old and Middle English had a number of non-Latin letters that have since dropped out of use. These either took the names of the equivalent runes, since there were no Latin names to adopt, or (thorn, wyn) were runes themselves.
- Æ æ ash or æsc //, used for the vowel //, which disappeared from the language and then reformed. Replaced by ae[l] and e now.
- Ð ð edh, eð or eth //, and Þ þ thorn or þorn //, both used for the consonants // and // (which did not become phonemically distinct until after these letters had fallen out of use). Replaced by th now.
- Œ œ ethel, ēðel, œ̄þel, etc. //, used for the vowel /œ/, which disappeared from the language quite early. Replaced by oe[m] and e now.
- Ƿ ƿ wyn, ƿen or wynn //, used for the consonant //. (The letter 'w' had not yet been invented.) Replaced by w now.
- Ȝ ȝ yogh, ȝogh or yoch // or //, used for various sounds derived from //, such as // and //. Replaced by y, j[n] and ch[o] now.
- ſ long s, an earlier form of the lowercase "s" that continued to be used alongside the modern lowercase s into the 1800s. Replaced by lowercase s now.
The most common diacritic marks seen in English publications are the acute (é), grave (è), circumflex (â, î, or ô), tilde (ñ), umlaut and diaeresis (ü or ï—the same symbol is used for two different purposes), and cedilla (ç). Diacritics used for tonal languages may be replaced with tonal numbers or omitted.
Diacritic marks mainly appear in loanwords such as naïve and façade. Informal English writing tends to omit diacritics because of their absence from the keyboard, while professional copywriters and typesetters tend to include them.
As such words become naturalised in English, there is a tendency to drop the diacritics, as has happened with many older borrowings from French, such as hôtel. 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. However, diacritics are likely to be retained even in naturalised words where they would otherwise be confused with a common native English word (for example, résumé rather than resume). Rarely, they may even be added to a loanword for this reason (as in maté, from Spanish yerba mate but following the pattern of café, from French, to distinguish from mate).
Native English words
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. For this, è is used widely in poetry, e.g., in Shakespeare's sonnets. J. R. R. Tolkien used ë, as in O wingëd crown.
Similarly, while in chicken coop the letters -oo- represent a single vowel sound (a digraph), they less often represent two which may be marked with a diaresis as in zoölogist and coöperation. This use of the diaeresis is rare but found in some well-known publications, such as MIT Technology Review and The New Yorker. Some publications, particularly in UK usage, have replaced the diaeresis with a hyphen such as in co-operative.
In general, these devices are not used even where they would serve to alleviate some degree of confusion.
Punctuation marks within words
The apostrophe (ʼ) is not usually considered part of the English alphabet nor used as a diacritic, even in loanwords. But it is used for two important purposes in written English: to mark the "possessive"[p] and to mark contracted words. Current standards require its use for both purposes. Therefore, apostrophes are necessary to spell many words even in isolation, unlike most punctuation marks, which are concerned with indicating sentence structure and other relationships among multiple words.
- It distinguishes (from the otherwise identical regular plural inflection -s) the English possessive morpheme 's (apostrophe alone after a regular plural affix, giving -s' as the standard mark for plural + possessive). Practice settled in the 18th century; before then, practices varied but typically all three endings were written -s (but without cumulation). This meant that only regular nouns bearing neither could be confidently identified, and plural and possessive could be potentially confused (e.g., "the Apostles words"; "those things over there are my husbands")—which undermines the logic of "marked" forms.
- Many common contractions have near-homographs from which they are distinguished in writing only by an apostrophe, for example it's (it is or it has) as opposed to its, the possessive form of "it", or she'd (she would or she had) as opposed to shed.
Hyphens are often used in English compound words. Written compound words may be hyphenated, open or closed, so specifics are guided by stylistic policy. Some writers may use a slash in certain instances.
The letter most commonly used in English is E. The least used letter is Z. The frequencies shown in the table may differ in practice according to the type of text.
The letters A, E, I, O, and U are considered vowel letters, since (except when silent) they represent vowels, although I and U represent consonants in words such as "onion" and "quail" respectively.
The letter Y sometimes represents a consonant (as in "young") and sometimes a vowel (as in "myth"). Very rarely, W may represent a vowel (as in "cwm", a Welsh loanword).
The consonant sounds represented by the letters W and Y in English (/w/ and /j/ as in yes /jɛs/ and went /wɛnt/) are referred to as semi-vowels (or glides) by linguists, however this is a description that applies to the sounds represented by the letters and not to the letters themselves.
The remaining letters are considered consonant letters, since when not silent they generally represent consonants.
The English language itself 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, mostly as 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. As such, the Old English alphabet began to employ parts of the Roman alphabet in its construction. 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 in 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. 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. He listed the 24 letters of the Latin alphabet first, including the ampersand, then 5 additional English letters, starting with the Tironian note ond (⁊), an insular symbol for and:
In the orthography of Modern English, the letters thorn (þ), eth (ð), wynn (ƿ), yogh (ȝ), ash (æ), and ethel (œ) are obsolete. Latin borrowings reintroduced homographs of æ and œ into Middle English and Early Modern English, though they are largely obsolete (see "Ligatures in recent usage" below), and where they are used they are not considered to be separate letters (e.g., for collation purposes), but rather ligatures. 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 (where they now represent two separate sounds, /θ/ and /ð/ having become phonemically-distinct – as indeed also happened in Modern English), while ð is still used in present-day Faroese (although only as a silent letter). 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. 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. Today, the English alphabet is considered to consist of the following 26 letters:
- ch (usually makes tsh sound)
- ci (makes s sound)
- ck (makes k sound)
- gh (makes f or g sound (also silent))
- ng (makes a voiced velar nasal)
- ph (makes f sound)
- qu (makes kw sound)
- rh (makes r sound)
- sc (makes s sound (also a blend)[clarification needed])
- sh (makes ch sound without t)
- th (makes theta or eth sound)
- ti (makes sh sound)
- wh (makes w sound)
- wr (makes r sound)
- zh (makes j sound without d)
Ligatures in recent usage
Outside of professional papers on specific subjects that traditionally use ligatures in loanwords, ligatures are seldom used in modern English. The ligatures æ and œ were until the 19th century (slightly later in American English) 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 usually 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 maneuver for manoeuvre).
Some typefaces used to typeset English texts contain commonly used ligatures, such as for ⟨tt⟩, ⟨fi⟩, ⟨fl⟩, ⟨ffi⟩, and ⟨ffl⟩. These are not independent letters – although in traditional typesetting, each of these ligatures would have its own sort (type element) for practical reasons – but simply type design choices created to optimise the legibility of the text.
There have been a number of proposals to extend or replace the basic English alphabet. These include proposals for the addition of letters to the English alphabet, such as eng or engma (Ŋ ŋ), used to replace the digraph "ng" and represent the voiced velar nasal sound with a single letter. Benjamin Franklin's phonetic alphabet, based on the Latin alphabet, introduced a number of new letters as part of a wider proposal to reform English orthography. Other proposals have gone further, proposing entirely new scripts for written English to replace the Latin alphabet such as the Deseret alphabet and the Shavian alphabet.
- Alphabet song – Song that teaches an alphabet
- NATO phonetic alphabet – Most widely used spelling alphabet
- English orthography – English spelling and punctuating rules
- English-language spelling reform – Proposed reforms to English spelling to be more phonetic
- American manual alphabet – Manual alphabet that augments the vocabulary of American Sign Language
- Two-handed manual alphabets – Part of a deaf sign language
- English Braille – Tactile writing system for English
- American Braille – Braille alphabet used in the US before the adoption of standardized English braille
- New York Point – Tactile alphabet invented by William Bell Wait
- Chinese respelling of the English alphabet – Chinese pronunciation of the English alphabet.
- Burmese respelling of the English alphabet
- Base36 – Binary-to-text encoding scheme
Notes and references
- often in Hiberno-English, due to the letter's pronunciation in the Irish language
- The usual form in Hiberno-English and Australian English
- The letter J did not occur in Old French or Middle English. The Modern French name is ji /ʒi/, corresponding to Modern English jy (rhyming with i), which in most areas was later replaced with jay (rhyming with kay).
- in Scottish English
- In the US, an L-shaped object may be spelled ell.
- in Hiberno-English
- in compounds such as es-hook
- Especially in American English, the /l/ is often not pronounced in informal speech. (Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed). Common colloquial pronunciations are //, //, and // (as in the nickname "Dubya") or just //, especially in terms like www.
- In many dialects,why is a homophone of y
- in British English, Hiberno-English and Commonwealth English
- in American English, Newfoundland English and Philippine English
- in British English
- in British English
- in words like hallelujah
- in words like loch in Scottish English
- Linguistic analyses vary on how best to characterise the English possessive morpheme -'s: a noun case inflectional suffix distinct to possession, a genitive case inflectional suffix equivalent to prepositional periphrastic of X (or rarely for X), an edge inflection that uniquely attaches to a noun phrase's final (rather than head) word, or an enclitic postposition.
- The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition.
- Michael Everson, Evertype, Baldur Sigurðsson, Íslensk Málstöð, On the Status of the Latin Letter Þorn and of its Sorting Order
- "The Dixie Primer, for the Little Folks". Branson, Farrar & Co., Raleigh NC.
- Strizver, Ilene, "Accents & Accented Characters", Fontology, Monotype Imaging, retrieved 2019-06-17
- MHRA Style Guide: A Handbook for Authors and Editors (pdf) (3rd ed.), London: Modern Humanities Research Association, 2013, Section 2.2, ISBN 978-1-78188-009-8, retrieved 2019-06-17.
- Zoölogist, Minnesota Office of the State (1892). Report of the State Zoölogist.
- Kingsley Amis quoted in Jane Fyne, "Little Things that Matter Archived 2012-09-04 at archive.today," Courier Mail (2007-04-26) Retrieved 2013-04-07.
- Pullum, Geoffrey K. (March 22, 2013). "Being an apostrophe (Lingua Franca post)". Chronicle of Higher Education.
- Beker, Henry; Piper, Fred (1982). Cipher Systems: The Protection of Communications. Wiley-Interscience. p. 397. Table also available from Lewand, Robert (2000). Cryptological Mathematics. Mathematical Association of America. p. 36. ISBN 978-0883857199. and "English letter frequencies". Archived from the original on 2008-07-08. Retrieved 2008-06-25.
- Shaw, Phillip (May 2013). "Adapting the Roman alphabet for Writing Old English: Evidence from Coin Epigraphy and Single-Sheet Characters". Early Medieval Europe. Wiley Blackwell. 21: 115–139. doi:10.1111/emed.12012 – via Ebscohost.
- "Digraphs (Phonics on the Web)". phonicsontheweb.com. Archived from the original on 2016-04-13. Retrieved 2016-04-07.