You know the alphabet—it’s one of the first things you’re taught in school. But did you know that they’re not teaching you all of the alphabet? There are quite a few letters (defined somewhat loosely) that English largely tossed aside as our language grew, and you probably never even knew they existed (though in some cases, their fossils can still be seen).
Have you ever seen a place that calls itself “ye olde" whatever? As it happens, that’s not a Y, or, at least, it wasn’t supposed to be. Originally, it was an entirely different letter called thorn, which derived from the Old English runic alphabet, Futhorc. We replaced thorn with TH over time—it fell out of use at least in part because Gothic-style scripting made the letters Y and thorn look practically identical. And since Continental printing presses didn’t have thorn anyway, it just became common to replace it with a Y, a practice that was dropped as well—except on olde signs.
Another holdover from the Futhorc runic alphabet, wynn was adapted to the Latin alphabet because there wasn't a letter that quite fit the "w" sound that was common in English. You could (and they did) stick two Us together, but that wasn’t exactly right. Over time, though, the idea of sticking two Us together actually became quite popular, enough so that they literally became stuck together and became the letter W.
Yogh represented quite a few sounds in Middle English. According to English scholar Dennis Freeborn’s From Old English to Standard English, in just the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, it could stand for the “y” sound in yet, the “ch” sound in German Bach or Scottish loch, and many more.
But as the years went on, scholars started replacing all the instances of yogh with Y, G, or GH in their texts. Then, these new GH letters, through various linguistic processes, split into some of the wide range of sounds associated with "gh" today (though not all—the GH you see in ghost is thought to be from Dutch printers, for instance). It wasn’t a smooth process—according to linguistics professor Kate Burridge, “in the 1600s the word daughter was pronounced three ways: ‘dauter’, ‘dauchter’ and ‘daufter.’”
The yogh held on in Scotland, where its shape began to resemble a cursive Z—so when printing presses arrived, Scottish printers just replaced the missing yoghs with readily available Zs. Over the centuries, this meant that people began mispronouncing names—even today the first name of the UK politician Menzies Campbell is pronounced “MING-iss” rather than “Men-zees," though some Menzies do pronounce it with a Z.
You’re probably familiar with this letter from old-fashioned text, especially the kind found in churches. It’s even still used stylistically in words today, like æther and æon. What you may not know, however, is that æ was an English letter back in the days of Old English; it was called æsc or ash after the ash Futhorc rune, for which it was used as a substitute when transcribing into Latin letters. The letter disappeared around the 13th century; then, according to author Stephen Webb, it found a use in the 16th century in the Latin form of certain Greek words and was also used to pluralize Latinate words that ended in A, meaning it disappeared and reappeared in the alphabet (though nowadays it’s back on the disappearing track).
Eth is kind of like the little brother to thorn. Originating from Irish, today it represents a slightly different pronunciation of the “th” sound than is usually associated with thorn, with eth being the “th” sound in the words this or there and thorn being the “th” sound in the word thorn.
But all evidence suggests that this pronunciation difference didn’t exist in Old English—they were often used interchangeably, even within the same manuscript. According to British linguist David Crystal, a general lack of Old English manuscripts makes it difficult to determine why a thorn or an eth might be used in a particular manuscript, but it could be because there was a difference in the scribe’s accent, the variations were fun, the scribe thought one looked better or was easier to write, or maybe they just didn’t notice. Eventually both thorn and eth were replaced by TH, though thorn managed to stick around a little longer.
Today we just use it for stylistic purposes, but the ampersand has had a long and storied history in English, and was actually frequently included as a 27th letter of the alphabet as recently as the 19th century.
In fact, it’s because of its placement in the alphabet that it gets its name. Originally, the character was simply called and or sometimes et (from the Latin word for and, which the ampersand is usually stylistically meant to resemble). However, when teaching children the alphabet, the & was often placed at the end, after Z, and recited as “and per se and,” meaning “and in and of itself” or “and standing on its own” (& wasn’t entirely unique for this—people also used to say "A per se A," "I per se I," and "O per se O," especially when spelling out words to signify that those letters were functioning as words in their own right).
So you’d have “w, x, y, z, and, per se, and.” Over time, the last bit morphed into ampersand, and it stuck even after we quit teaching it as part of the alphabet.
7. Insular G
This letter (referred to as insular G or Irish G) is sort of the grandfather of the Middle English version of yogh. Originally an Irish letter, it was used for sounds like "zhyah," "jhah," and "gah." But with the arrival of the more familiar shape of the Carolingian G, that took over the "g" sound.
As Old English transformed into Middle English, insular g turned into yogh and, as mentioned earlier, was slowly replaced in large part with the now-standard GH by scribes, at which point insular g/yogh were no longer needed and the Carolingian G stood alone (though a descendant can still be seen in modern Ireland).
Much like the way we have a symbol for and, we also once had a similar situation with that (or, in Old English, þæt), which was a letter thorn with a stroke at the top. It was originally just a shorthand, an amalgamation of thorn and T (so more like “tht”), but it eventually caught on and got somewhat popular in its own right—according to Unicode, the letter could even be used as a stand-in for Old English words that contained þæt, so oþþæt ("until") could be spelled O, thorn, thorn-with-stroke-in-ascender [PDF]. And Yt (with the Y being a relic thorn, à la Ye) survived as shorthand for that until surprisingly late, showing up well into the 18th century.
9. Tironian “Et”
It’s said that a long time ago, Marcus Tullius Tiro (who was basically Roman statesman Cicero’s P.A.) invented a shorthand system called Tironian notes. It was a fairly simple system that was easily expanded, so it remained in use by scribes for centuries after Tiro’s death [PDF].
One of the most useful symbols was the et symbol—a simple way of tossing in an “and.” It was sometimes drawn in a way that’s now a popular stylistic way of drawing the number 7. And English scribes did something very clever with it—if they wrote b⁊, that would stand for "band" or "bond" or whatever spelling that particular scribe used (this being an era before spelling bees). The Tironian et still shows up on things like signs in Ireland, but it’s largely been replaced by the ampersand.
10. Long S
You may have seen this in old books or other documents. Sometimes the letter S will be replaced by a character that looks a bit like an F. This is what’s known as a long S, which was an early form of a lowercase S. And yet the modern lowercase S (then referred to as the short S) was still used according to a complicated set of rules (but most usually seen at the end of a word), which led to many words (especially plurals) using both. For example, ſuperſtitious is how the word superstitious would have been printed. It was purely a stylistic lettering, and didn’t change pronunciation at all. It was also kind of silly and weird, since no other letters behaved that way—so around the beginning of the 19th century, the practice was largely abandoned and the modern lowercase S became king. But it does survive somewhere possibly unexpected: calculus homework. The integral symbol is thought to derive from a long S representing Latin summa.
Additional research by Austin Thompson. A version of this story ran in 2012; it has been updated in 2021.