Episode 36: Finalizing the Alphabet

We complete our look at the first Old English alphabet by exploring the remaining letters of the original alphabet.  The north-south divide resulted in distinct letters and different spelling conventions.  But over time, these differences blended together.  Once again, we examine how these initial spelling rules impacted Modern English spellings.

11 thoughts on “Episode 36: Finalizing the Alphabet

  1. the root derivation of “free” and “freedom” it is my understanding that free and family are cognates and free meant that you were a member of the family and possessed of the rights and duties of a family member. as opposed to a slave or serf who had no membership protection or full priliviledge and could be sold dismissed or otherwise idisregarded. I think the very soul of “free” is lost in current usage as the duties invested therein are unrecognized. this has a bankrupting effect on culture and society which has necessary obligations. What do you think. W

    • I can’t find any connection between “free” and “family.” “Free” is an Old English word. “Family” is derived from the Latin root “famulus,” but the history of that word beyond Latin is unknown. I doubt there is any cognate relationship between the two words because the Indo-European root of “free” was “priya” with a ‘p’ sound. As was common, the Indo-European ‘p’ sound shifted to an ‘f’ sound in the Germanic languages, but Latin retained the original ‘p’ sound. So if there was a Latin word from that same root, it would probably begin with a ‘p’ sound.

      However, I should note that you are on to something about the familial nature of “free.” The Indo-European root word meant ‘dear or beloved,’ and the Proto-Germanic word had much of that same meaning. In fact, the Old English version of the word was even used to mean ‘wife’ in at least one Old English document. So I think that may be the root of the idea that “free” is connected to “family.”

  2. Hi Kevin,

    I’m thoroughly enjoying your podcast. I have a question about representing the th sound, and perhaps you answered it when you were discussing how scribes represented th in OE. If so, I apologize for not listening closely enough.

    As you mentioned, the Greeks had the letter theta to represent the th sound. But, the Romans did not have that sound, so they did not include theta in their alphabet. Did any of the OE scribes know of the Greek alphabet? If so, why did they not use theta to represent the th sound?

    Thank you.

    • Knowledge of the Greek alphabet was very limited among the Anglo-Saxons. Anglo-Saxon scribes were familiar with the Latin alphabet, and relied upon techniques developed by other scribes who used that alphabet. Roman scribes had invented the technique of using the ‘th’ letter combination to represent Greek words that used theta. Since English also had that same sound, they just adopted that ‘th’ letter combination. So ultimately, the ‘th’ spelling does have a Greek connection.

  3. As somebody bilingual in Dutch and English, I really have to ask where the “th” sound has gone from modern Dutch and German where the “th” is one of the most difficult English sounds for modern Dutch and German speakers to pronounce.

    • The shift from /th/ to /d/ was part of the Second Germanic Sound Shift that affected most continental Germanic languages, but not English. This specific change occurred in the 9th and 10th centuries and affected German and Dutch. This explains the difference between English “brother” and German “Bruder.”

  4. The D sound is used instead of th sound by some people.
    However, in Tasmania, the v sound is used instead of the “th” sound.
    So they would say, my brover, faver, mover. (brother, father, mother).

  5. In episode 36, you discuss how the F sound moved to the V sound in some words, which led to some words having an F in the singular and a V in the plural in modern English (wife, wives; calf, calves etc.).

    I found that particularly interesting because both my husband and I pronounce many of those V plural words with an F sound. So, we both tend to say “hoofs”, “knifes”, “shelfs” etc when speaking even though we would write them as “hooves”, “knives” and “shelves”. That pronunciation is a feature of the Scots language although my speech also shows it when I speak English with my Scottish accent.

    This morning, I was listening to another podcast, James O’Brien’s Mystery Hour (10th May episode), where listeners phone in with questions and answers; if you call with an answer, you have to explain how you know it (“your qualifications”). A woman phoned to ask why the personal pronoun “I” was capitalised. The caller who answered the question said that he had heard the explanation on your podcast!

    • Interesting! Thanks for the Scots pronunciation note. I didn’t realize the ‘v’ sound was replaced with an ‘f’ sound there.

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