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History of the English Alphabet

History of the English Alphabet

“Dad says there are more than three thousand letters in the Japanese alphabet, which could pose a problem. There are only twenty-six letters in the English alphabet, and I get into enough trouble with them as it is.”  -
- Rin Chupeco- the author of “The girl from the well” from Manila, Philippines! 

 We have all grown up learning the twenty-six letters of the English language either by using traditional flash cards, alphabet mats and coloring pages or the more inspiring Alphabet songs rhyming with the famous nursery song – Twinkle Twinkle little star . But not many of us may have actually read about the long journey that the English alphabet has gone through over several centuries and the influences it has had from several other languages!

Well, it is actually quite an enlightening read to trace back this journey. What once originated as a very complex Old English, transitioned through a semi complex version called the Middle English before it finally evolved into a rather much simplified version called the Modern English, that we are all blessed to have inherited today in a fairly simple format with just 26 letters of the alphabet.

Here is a brief and concise chronology of the evolution with some of the factual data drawn from “English over fifteen centuries “- from the Ninth edition of the Oxford dictionary.

  • Old English, officially declared as the first phase of the English language belongs to The Era of the Anglo Saxons who settled in Britain from the Fifth century. The language of the Anglo Saxons was Germanic (which included a branch of Old Norse language of the Danish and Scandinavian invaders) However they continued to have the influence of the Latin words owing to the contact that Anglo Saxon Britain had with the Roman Empire of which Latin was the official language. English here comprises of the old alphabet written in the Anglo Saxon Futhorc runic form which originally started with 26 characters but had a total of 33 by the time it faded out in 11th century AD. 
  • Middle English then took over around the Eleventh century with the invasion of the French speaking Normans which brought about a significant influence of French over the English language. This was a phase that continued for about 200 years after which French influence began to diminish a333nd the English form was more a combination of influences from Germanic, Norse and Latin. This is how Middle English emerged as the form of written and spoken language and regained prominence over French and Anglo-Saxon words. During this phase a formal list of the Old English alphabet was made 24 in number and included all of our  present letters except  J, u/v  and w .The ampersand and 5 uniquely designed English letters were included making it a total of 29 characters 
  • Advent of Modern English from Fifteenth century onwards - Fifteen century began to throw up a significant measure of uniformity for several reasons such as evolving thought process to align with correctness as also practical considerations from printing perspective. During this time English became more standardized and modern English appeared. Here the 5 unique letters of Middle English are omitted. V and u were split into 2 letters with u becoming vowel and v the consonant.  W assumed status of an Independent letter. J was also added to create the modern English alphabet set of 26 that is in vogue today. The modern English Alphabet is a Latin alphabet consisting of these 26 letters each having an upper and lower case.

More recent developments in the English alphabet can be traced back to Renaissance phase Fifteenth to Seventeenth century. The rediscovery of the Greek and roman culture in Europe brought about a significant influence on English during this period. Many of the Latin words were reintroduced into English.  So English took a new transformation as a combination of Germanic, Greek and Latin. There are many new words formed on Greek and Latin source words. From eighteenth century onwards, there has also been an inflection of new words from other countries arising out of global trade, colonization and international communication. In fact, English is now used extensively all over the world, resulting in   varying forms, accents, vocabulary and usage.


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