Issue 142, page 1

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lost letters

In our discussion of English words beginning with wl- [Spotlight, Issue 138] we happened to mention a letter called yogh.  This resulted in a number of letters from readers all of which can be summarized in the syllable "Wha...?".

Yes, the English alphabet was not always as we now know it.  We are missing at least three letters: thorn, edh and yogh, all of which were present in Old English script.  thornThorn (þ, pronounced "thorn") was used for an "unvoiced" th as in thorn and thistle, while an edh (or eth) indicated the "voiced" th of this and that. Whether spelled edh or eth, ð is pronounced like the eth in whether.  In Modern English, both have been replaced by th except in the curious instance where one has become a y, on signs such as "Ye Olde Tea Shoppe"Have you ever wondered about that ye?  It's not the ye which means "you" ("Oh, you old tea shop!") so what is it?  In fact, it is a thinly disguised theedh (or eth)

Unfortunately, even Old English scribes confused edh and thorn and sometimes wrote the as þe when they should have written ðe. Just to complicate matters (actually it was to save parchment), they used an abbreviation which placed the e above the þ. In some scripts, þ looked rather like a letter y so, as edh and thorn fell into disuse, this the symbol was misinterpreted as a y with a superposed e.  Later still, the letters were written side by side and we forgot how to pronounce it.

Another familiar abbreviation is the ampersand (&).  Its name comes from the way English schoolchildren used to recite the alphabet: "A, per se, ah; B, per se, buh..." (that is, "A by itself is ah; B by itself is buh...") and so on up to X, Y, Z and &..  Yes, in those days the & was placed at the end of every alphabet and, naturally, when children were called upon to pronounce it they said "And, per se, and".  It time these four words were run together as ampersand.  

The & was invented by Marcus Tirus in 63 B.C. as part of an early shorthand system called "Tirean Notes" and originated as a way to write the Latin word et (= "and") without lifting the pen.  Another common way of abbreviating et looked like a letter z which is why the Latin videlicet (="namely") is abbreviated as viz., even though there is no z in the original.

And this brings us neatly back to yogh which, as we shall see, ended up being written as a z. yogh Originally it represented a guttural g sound but by the 15th century English had lost this sound. It was replaced with a gh in words such as Scarborough but by y in Salisbury. Knowing this helps us see that borough and bury (both meaning "fortified town") are essentially different ways of spelling the same word. Yogh lingered a few more centuries in Scotland. While we might think of it as a t with a curly tail or a g with a flat hat, the Scots looked at surviving yoghs and saw them as being a variant form of z. Hence the curious spellings of the name Menzies and the bird known as the capercailzie, in neither of which is the z pronounced.

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