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.

4 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.

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