The History of the English Alphabet

Over the weeks I have been really impressed by how much people have pushed themselves in these 100 word challenges, trying out new writing styles that are well outside their comfort zones. I decided it was about time I did the same, so last week I tried out poetry, and this week I’m having a go at non-fiction. I know this is not at all what Julia meant when she told us to “do ‘something’ with, involving, pertinent to THE ALPHABET”, but I’m feeling rebellious so I don’t care!

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The word ‘alphabet’ comes from the first two letters of the Greek alphabet (alpha and beta). The English alphabet as we know it, with its 26 letters, has only been in existence since the 1500s. When English first began to be written down, in the 5th century, the Anglo-Saxon Runic alphabet was used. The Latin script was introduced by Christian missionaries in the 7th century, and for a time both scripts were used.

There was no formal order for the letters until 1011, when Byrhtferð, a writer, organised the then 29 letters, into roughly the order we would recognise today.

This post is part of the 100 Word Challenge for Grown-Ups at Julia’s Place.

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What’s the rest of this then? The 100 words are up. Well, yes…but I found researching the history of the English alphabet so interesting, that I thought I’d share a bit more of what I found out just in case there are any geeks like me reading that want to know what else I discovered!

At the time the alphabet included the ampersand (&) and five other letters and looked like this.

A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X Y Z & > Ƿ Þ Ð Æ

Byrhtferð actually ordered the letters to aid numerology, but a side-effect of his effort was that with an order the alphabet became easier to memorise and therefore to use for writing.

The last six letters of this alphabet were deleted in the 14th and 15th centuries, although there is still some evidence of & and Þ . The letter & was originally a combination of the letters ‘et’ and now means ‘and’ because of its association with the Latin word ‘et’ also meaning ‘and’. Over time Þ (which was a th sound) came to be written as an elongated ‘y’ and can be seen in signs such as “Ye Olde Booke Shoppe.”

Finally in the 16th century, j u and w became letters in their own right, instead of just variations of i and v, and the 26 letter alphabet that we learnt to chant when we were children was born.

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21 Responses to The History of the English Alphabet

  1. Ian Simpson says:

    It IS really interesting. Thanks for researching and summarising in 100 words (more or less! 🙂 ). I’d never considered non-fiction to be an appropriate genre for this challenge before, so now I’ve learned two new things thanks to your blog post!

    • sjbteaching says:

      Thanks. I would never have though of non-fiction either, but lots of people have tried it out on here. I really enjoyed reading your piece, but it won’t let me commet without setting up a posterous blog 😦

  2. says:

    I learned something here as I enjoyed your entry. Thanks for the lovely lesson. 🙂

    • sjbteaching says:

      You’re welcome 🙂 I really enjoyed researching it. There was so much I could have included but Ididn’t think I should put too much extra after the 100 words were up!

  3. Andy wts says:

    You’re a rebel subversive, SJ, up the revolution!

  4. Anna Halford says:

    How interesting; I didn’t know about & and the other symbols having been part of the alphabet. I think your interpretation is excellent. 😉

  5. Lisa (Woman Wielding Words) says:

    Very interesting. I think it is always good to challenge yourself in new ways too. Who knows, maybe you will become the next expert on alphabets.

    • sjbteaching says:

      When I started researching I found it was like a spider’s web with all the infuences the different alphabets had on each other. I had to be really strict with myself to stick to just reading about the English alphabet.

  6. Robin Hawke says:

    I’m glad you continued past 100 words, the next few paragraphs were fascinating! Robin

  7. GSussex says:

    Echoing previous comments. Very interesting and well written in your chosen genre, enjoyed!

  8. sjbteaching says:

    Thanks Robin and Gill. Glad other people enjoyed reading my discoveries!

  9. Dughall McCormick says:

    Great stuff Sally-Jayne. I am so glad you branched out this time. I am also glad I’m part of the 100WCGU gang as I am learning so much!

    • sjbteaching says:

      I love being part of the 100WCGU gang too! All the fun on a Monday night of getting the new prompt, then the excitement of writing the piece, and finally the enjoyment of sharing everyone else’s creativity! Long may it continue!

  10. Bill Dameron says:

    You rebel, you!

    Being a non-fiction writer myself, I really loved this post. Well written and made me want to continue reading past the initial 100 words. Well done!

  11. susankmann says:

    That is really interesting and very well written. I really enjoyed this piece x

  12. PollyBurns2 says:

    Really interesting piece, I didn’t know most of that. Thanks for the extra, too. Polly.

  13. sjbteaching says:

    Thanks for your comments Susan and Polly. I’m glad it’s not just me that found this interesting!

  14. Julia says:

    What an interesting post. I had no idea that the alphabet had such a history. I think that the information you have shared proves why we need non-fiction writing. Well done for stretching yourself this week. It certainly worked!

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