Knowledge base

Who Invented The English Alphabet?

Who invented the English alphabet is a question that bothered linguists and language specialists for a long period of time. It is considered to be among the most ancient languages that came a long way of development, shifts, and changes. Still today, in the 21st century it continues to grow and change, attracting more and more native speakers from all over the world.

What is the English Alphabet or How it Came to Be?

Did you ever wonder about how many letters are in the English alphabet or what is the history of each letter? All these things are quite interesting and tell a lot about why learning English or using it as a native speaker is a path of great discoveries. Using it daily, most people do not even question the importance of an alphabet until they start looking for something or need to sort a Bibliography page for a university assignment. 

Firstly originating from the Latin script, approximately at the beginning of the 7th century, the English alphabet went through numerous changes. The modern version, as we know it today, consists of twenty-six letters that we can see in an uppercase or a lower-case form. Influenced by numerous scholars and the social trends, the English alphabet forces us to travel back to the fifth century AD and the history of a written word. Since there were strong bonds with Scandinavian countries, the ancient Anglo-Saxon writing style (Futhorc) represented a runic language. It should be mentioned that the runes used a flexible set of symbols, which has changed all the time as the various North Sea cultures took part in a cultural exchange. 

By the time the runes have appeared in English, there were exactly twenty-six characters. Without a doubt, it has influenced the number of letters in the alphabet. Now as the times of the runes came to an end (approximately 11th century AD), the characters set has increased to thirty-three characters. The next important change was brought by the Greeks who have built a modern look alphabet by adding the template created by the Phoenicians and introducing the vowels in 750 BC. 

The Amazing History of the British Alphabet 

Exploring English language origin, it is crucial to go back to the times of the seventh century when the Latin alphabet has been carried over by the Christian missionaries. It marks the first important era that linguists define as Old English. 

Old English

The birth of this particular variation is the year 1011 because a compilation of the old-style alphabet has been presented. It included most letters that we know today, except for “U” and “W”. Speaking of the “V” letter, which is probably hard to imagine as we think of the famous “Victory” sign, it was used along with “U” during the Middle Ages, representing a single letter. The most prominent difference of Old English (a period until the year 1150) is the presence of strong Germanic vocabulary. Old English had four main dialects that were relevant to the Anglo-Saxon ruling branches. It resulted in Mercian, Northumbrian, Kentish, and West Saxon dialects. Old English is still taught at the university, yet it will sound like a foreign language to most modern speakers since it is closer to Old Frisian than to modern English and has a slightly different British alphabet because of a relative resemblance to runes with an ampersand considered as one of the letters. In total it had 24 letters with five additional Old English letters not present in the Latin alphabet. 

Middle English 

This period is marked by the Normans Invasion (think somewhere around 1066 AD). While it may be hard to imagine today, the use of English was mostly related to the low social groups or people with a small income. As for the noble individuals, the scholars and those in power mostly spoke or wrote Latin or Norman. Since the Norman language is also known as the Norman French, it has influenced the Middle English speakers. Even though it does not say who invented the English alphabet per se, this period has helped English to come in power again by the 13th century. It has also replaced the Old English letters known as “thorn”, which become “th”. Then it got rid of the “eth” letter, too. Now, “wynn” construction turned to “u”, which later became “w”. Considered as one of the most difficult language periods to learn, it is not too hard to understand for most English natives. Think of Canterbury Tales in its original form as an example.

Modern English 

Welcome to the middle of the 15th century’s Great Britain and the rise of the printing press. Thanks to William Caxton who has brought the printing business into England, the English language went through even more changes. The major language standardization has finally split “V” and “U” into two letters by letting “U” function as the vowel while leaving “V” as the consonant. While it may not essentially give full credits or say who invented the alphabet, the famous work of Robert Cawdrey marks an important milestone in Modern English. The letter “J” was added to the alphabet in 1604 when the very first English dictionary called “Table Alphabeticall” was published. Bringing in the print language standards, Cawdrey’s dictionary has introduced the basic spelling rules with the use of the 26 alphabet letters. 

Some Facts about The English Alphabet 

Even if you have learned about how the Phoenician contributed to the transition of the written scripts and shared their legacy with the Greek, it does not explain much about alphabetical origins in most Germanic languages. Since English, in particular, has eliminated five odd letters by the 16th century, it is time to learn more. Without a doubt,  most of us know how many letters are in the alphabet, yet very few can tell the story behind each letter. 

A

First introduced in the 1800s, it was originally turned upside down to represent the horns of an animal. It has Semitic roots. 

B

Representing a gate or a door, if you turn B around. This letter comes to us from the Egyptian script writing. 

C

Coming from the Phoenicians, it was called Gamma by the Greeks.

D

The original meaning of this letter is “a door”, which is not surprising. It was called Delta by the Greeks. 

E

Travel about four hundred years back and you will find out that the Semitic language pronounced this letter as an “H”. 

F

The ancient Greeks called it “digamma”. It had a sound close to an “aw”. 

G

The famous Greek “zeta”. Since Latin did not have any “Z” sound, this letter replaced the sound. 

H

Early English scholars believed that it was useless and dropped it from the Old English alphabet in 520 AD. 

I

Originally called “yod”, this letter was called “iota” by the Greeks. 

J

Coming from Spanish, it did not appear in print until 1604 when Robert Cowdrey brought it in. 

K

It belongs to the Egyptian writing era. Originally written backward, it became “kappa” in Greek and was turned around. 

L

Meaning “The God” in Semitic, it had a reversed look until it became a Greek Lambda. 

M

Originally turned upside down, this letter had five vertical lines to it until all the flipping around formed the letter as it is now. 

N

Named “nu” by the Greeks, it has Egyptian roots and means a King’s Cobra, while meaning “a fish” for the Semites! 

O

Another Egyptian entry that stands for the “eye”. It had quite a significance in Egyptian writing. 

P

This letter had a diagonal shape that resembled a fishing hook. The Romans turned it to the right and formed the modern shape.

Q

First met in Roman writings that date back to 520 BC, it is an only letter that used to stand for a word, meaning “a monkey”. 

R

Originally turned to the left, it has Hebrew roots and was originally pronounced as “resh”, meaning “the top”. 

S

Known as “Sigma” this letter has also seen its share of flipping around until the Romans brought it to a vertical position.

T

Found all over Semitic writings, “tee” was often used for measurement purposes. 

U

Looking like “Y” somewhere around 1000 BC, it was called “wauw” until it became the Greek “upsilon”. 

V

The V and U used to be the same letter until the 15th-century standardization. 

W

First appearing during the Middle Ages, it did not appear in any print sources until 1700. 

X

The lowercase version of this letter can be met in numerous medieval manuscripts. 

Y

Originally added by the Romans, it is a derivation from the Greek upsilon. 

Z

The set of English letters did not include it at all until the arrival of the Normans and their necessity to introduce and transpose the missing “Z” sound. 

A Practical Advice For Language Research

As you research the English language, pay attention to the idioms and the various old-time expressions that you still use in a daily conversation. Take medieval texts from the library books and try to read them aloud. While the lexical content may seem relatively unknown to you, try to imitate the sounds and see how different they are in the modern translation. The key is to compare the past and the present and take notes as you explore!