5 Insane Things You Don't Know About Letters of the Alphabet
I bet a lot of you thought you were done learning about the alphabet. "The alphabet? The ABC thing? Yeah, I think I've got that pretty down pat, G," you'd say wittily.
Well I'm here to tell you that no, you don't know everything there is to know about the alphabet -- that in fact, the alphabet's been playing you for a sap. So learn with me, friend, the stunning facts that the alphabet doesn't want you to know about.
J Is the Newest, Trendiest Letter (and Was Originally Pronounced Like "I")
The alphabet didn't appear fully formed out of nowhere, blasted into rock by a really unlikely lightning bolt. It was invented, in spurts and stages, as different civilizations borrowed ideas about writing from their peers. The practical effect of this is that some letters are older or younger than others, the youngest of them being J, which didn't appear until some time in the Middle Ages.
"I just invented a new letter!"
"That's good, m'lord. My entire family expired today."
"It's called J!"
J got its start hanging around in I's posse, and the first J's were basically I's that some monk got a little crazy drawing.
"Let's iazz this shit up a bit."
These long I, J-looking things would have still been pronounced as "I" for a while, but at some point in the Middle Ages, they took on that "J" sound we all know and love. Once that process began, all sorts of I words were given new, trendy J's for no real reason. The most notable of these hip new J-wearers was a guy called Jesus, previous known as Iesus (and Yeshua way before that).
"Nice work translating my name, guys. Good work all around."
So that's kind of fun, right? A little tidbit to share in the next circle ierk you end up in?
W, U, and V Used to Be the Same Letter
The sound we say when we say a letter in isolation is called its name, and some of them are kind of interesting. Like, for example, what the fuck is up with H? Aitch? Haitch? What are you doing, H?
Why are you still here, H? Why don't you just go home?
But nothing is as dumb as W, because that motherfucker is clearly, clearly made up of two V's, not U's. Well, it turns out that way back in toga times, U and V were basically the same letter. Which is why old Roman signage, despite being written in Latin, and thus kind of similar to the language we speak, seems to have way too many V's in it.
My Latin's not great, but I think this one's advertising an upcoming boxing match between Caesar and the Pope.
The U was supposedly the vowel version of the letter and the V the consonant version, but they were still written the same, and also probably pronounced like "W," so who knows what the fuck was really going on. W, U, and V all basically came from the same letter (so did Y, actually).
This little corner of the alphabet is so inbred that we're lucky we don't have a doubledouble-U around, drooling over everything.
"Ye" Is Actually a Single Letter (and We're Pronouncing It Totally Wrong)
OK, so you know that store in the quaint part of the mall that sell things you never need to buy? Buttons and bobbins and such? The one that for some reason has "Ye" in its name? Like most people, you've probably seen those signs and walked into the shop to punch the shopkeeper directly in the eye for being so twee. "Why don't you just write 'The,' you pompous ass?" you shrieked into his face.
"I HOPE A WALMART COMES IN AND JUST CRUSHES YOU."
Well it turns out that they did actually write "The," even if they didn't really know it. Because back in ye old times, that "Ye" wasn't spelled with a "Y" but a completely separate letter called a "thorn." Here's what a thorn looks like when it's wearing a little "e" as a hat:
Look familiar? That P or Y-looking thing is the thorn, and is pronounced "th." With the adorable little hat, it is pronounced exactly the same as "the," and the modern interpretation, Ye, should probably be pronounced the same way. It's actually a pretty useful letter, considering how widely used "the" is in the English language. There's even at least one fella suggesting we build an entirely new letter just to accommodate it.
Needs a hat if you ask me.
People Have Tried to Deliberately Mess With the Alphabet
I've talked about spelling reform before, and how various lunatics have attempted to change the way we spell words based on their own vision of how the world should work, or simply what the voices in their head have told them to do.
-hissing- "Kill all the U's, Noah."
But those all involved new spellings with the usual array of letters. At least a few people have proposed changing the actual alphabet itself. These proposals generally aim to get rid of letters that have sounds covered by other letters (i.e. dumping C, whose roles can be covered by K or S) or to add letters to accommodate common sounds that require the use of more than one letter (like SH, or NG). For example, back in tricorn hat days, Benjamin Franklin proposed a version of the alphabet which would have resulted in writing like this:
Translation: "Dear Penthouse, I never thought this would have happened to me."
The idea didn't really catch on because no one actually knew that Franklin was proposing it. "Seems our dear friend Benjamin Franklin is having a stroke," was I believe the most common interpretation.
We Still Have the Forgotten 27th Letter On Our Keyboards
Thanks to the brave efforts we made to fight off the evil Benjamin Franklin, our alphabet still only has 26 letters (in English, at least). But he wasn't the only one to propose new additions to the alphabet, and over the years, there have been a few contenders that have gotten pretty close to the prize. One of them is on your keyboard right now, in fact.
Not the seven. That's normal.
That's right, the ampersand. When Romans were writing out notes to each other about orgies and vomiting and such, they sometimes blurred their E's and T's together into one symbol ("et" meaning "and" in Latin). Over the years, this blurred together "and" kept getting blurrier and blurrier until it became the bizarre, rear-heavy monster we know today.
It was a crazy journey, with many literal twists and turns.
These kind of merged letters are called ligatures, and there are still a few loitering in the shadows of the English alphabet. But none are as old or as popular as the ampersand, which, because it was widely used in actual Latin texts, got copied down into Latin alphabets by various scholars in the Middle Ages. And as our alphabet derives from their work, the ampersand loitered on the edge of the English alphabet well into the 1800's. It's mentioned specifically in a well-known predecessor of the Alphabet song.
"Oh my god, Becky. Look at its butt."
The crazy name comes to us in a similar way. Because the ampersand was found at the end of the alphabet, people saying their ABC's would end their recitation with "and, per se and." Which, when sort of translated, means "&, itself meaning 'and.'" Which is clever, although kind of hard to remember. There are easier mnemonic devices for remembering the ampersand.
For example: if you see anything other than a dog dragging its ass on the ground, well, now you never will again.
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