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.


24 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.

      • Since the Romans did not have that ‘th’ sound, how would those borrowed Greek words have been pronounced? Would they use a ‘t’ sound? Or did the ‘h’ in the ‘th’ grapheme represent a new breathy or aspirated ‘t’ sound? (Similar to how those early English writers used ‘gh’ for that breathy ‘g’ sound.)

  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.

  6. Hi. Fantastic episode, as is the entire podcast!
    One issue I was surprise you didn’t cover in the discussion of “th”, eth and thorn, was the issue that “th” in English has two very different pronunciations – the voiced version in, e.g., “this”, and the unvoiced version in, e.g., “thing”. Did OE make a distinction between these two pronunciations? Were thorn and eth used to make this distinction, or not? If there was no such distinction in OE, when did it arise and why?

    • Thanks for the feedback! With respect to your question, Old English scribes made no distinction between the voiced and voiceless ‘th’ sounds. Old English had both sounds, but the thorn and eth were used interchangeably. I should note that Modern Icelandic still uses both of those traditional letters, and it is my understanding that each letter represents a specific sound in Icelandic. But the Anglo-Saxons were never that precise.

  7. Hopefully I am posting this question in the comments for the right episode…the dangers of binge-listenting…

    There was one question I was hoping you would answer about the letter W, but which you did not touch on:

    Why is it called “double U”, when it’s written (in modern English) as “double V”?

    I assume that the answer has something to do with the different shapes of the letter U not having been “finalized” at the time that the letter W came into being, but the “logical progression” in my mind doesn’t seem to make sense:

    * Scribes were using V for the ‘U sound’
    * They then doubled the letter to VV to represent the ‘W sound’
    * At some point later, they started using U for the ‘U sound’, and V was used for the ‘V sound’
    * So why did the letter representing the ‘W sound’, being a relatively ‘new letter’, not at that point transition to UU instead of VV?

    Of course, I’m sure you’re going to tell me that all of this is covered in excruciating detail in the History of the Alphabet e-book (which I will get around to purchasing one of these days, I promise!) 🙂

    • This is covered in excruciating detail in the History of the Alphabet audiobook. 😉

      But seriously, it is indeed a matter of timing. The U and V did not become distinct letters representing unique sounds until the 1700s. The technique of putting two U’s together for the /w/ sound began much earlier in the 1200s, and it became a distinct letter used by printers in the 1500s. So it became knowns as ‘double-U’ in English since the V didn’t exist as a distinct letter yet. However, French continued to use a single U (or sometimes OU) until the 1800s. So when French adopted the letter W, they called it ‘double-V.’

    • It’s funny, but in Ghana until quite recently all school children learned to write the lower case ‘w’ as two uu together (literally, double u) but wrote the upper case one as W (double V). I don’t know why we were taught that way.

  8. Episode 36: 33m18s. When the first old English scribes adopted the roman alphabet, the letters “j” and “w” didn’t exist. “u” and “v” were considered to be one letter written two different ways. As well, the old English scribes didn’t use the letters “q”, “x” and “z”.

    Hi Kevin et al. The second time through takes longer than the first because I am more aware of what I might miss if I breathe in. Or out!

    Regarding q/x/z: Does the following statement have the ring of truth about it:-
    Any word in English which contains at least one of the letters q/x/z has a strong possibility (say 90% or more) of being a “Loan Word”.

    I think that episodes 33-36 are concerned with events around the years 600-700, so that would place a q/x/z word as having arrived in the English mainstream language at any time after the year 700.

    Chris Greaves

    • I think that’s a good general rule, but there are certainly exceptions – especially for the letter Q. There were lots of Anglo-Saxon words with a /kw/ sound in Old English that were spelled ‘CW’. Most of those words received new spellings in Middle English with the more common French spelling ‘QU.’ That’s how Old English ‘cwic’ became ‘quick,’ and Old English ‘cwen’ became ‘queen.’

    • The spellings with ‘x’ is mixed. ‘Box’ and ‘ox’ are Old English words with ‘x’ spelling right from the start. However, ‘axe’ is a respelling of OE ‘ces’ or ‘acas’ (Northumbrian). ‘Mix’, ‘fix’ and other are loan words.

  9. I’ve read that the letter “eth” represented the voiced fricative (“this”, “that”, “bathe”) and thorn represented the voiceless fricative (“thatch”, “thumb”, “bath”).

  10. Hi Kevin
    I’m finding the podcast fascinating, thank you. I have a question about some of the sounds you refer to in this episode & how they are represented in writing. Firstly the breathy sound – this is common in Celtic languages, eg loch in Scotland or Llangollen in Wales. Is this connected with the breathy sound in Dutch etc? I also wanted to note that in Welsh, a letter F is pronounced V, eg Pen y Fan is pronounced Pen-uh-van. Is this a hold-over from the spelling in Old English, or a separate development? Thanks

    • Hi Helen. Those breathy sounds were traditionally represented with either letter ‘G’ or letter ‘H’ in Old English. In Middle English, it became common to put both of those letters together, which gave us the ‘GH’ spelling for the sound. Since that sound has gone silent in English (for the most part), that’s why we have so many silent ‘GH’ spellings in English (night, light, thought, etc.) The sound has been retained in some words in Scotland, so the sound heard there is often a lingering sound from Old English. Welsh is not a Germanic language, so Welsh and English are only related though their shared Indo-European roots. I suspect that the sounds you mentioned in Welsh are part of separate developments within that language, but I know nearly nothing about Welsh phonetics.

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