The English Alphabet

Carrying on from yesterday’s look at the NATO phonetic alphabet, I thought today I’d spend a little time thinking about the regular English alphabet in general. It’s something we take for granted, but there are plenty of interesting things about it.

It is of course a Latin-based alphabet, like those of most European languages, but even then not each one is the same. Italian, for example, does not feature the letters J, K, W, X and Y, though they are still used in loanwords. German on the other hand, features the same 26 letters as English, but also a few extra characters, such as the ligature ß. A ligature is a typological feature which combines two letters or graphemes into one symbol. In this case, ß represents the letters SS, particularly after a long vowel sound. We don’t really use any ligatures in English anymore, but the most recognisable might be Æ. Combining A and E, this is known as an ash. Derived from medieval Latin, it’s still to be found occasionally in particular titles, and is still in common use in Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic, and Faroese. The ampersand (&) was originally a ligature, combining E and T to form the Latin et (and), though now of course it’s technically a punctuation mark.

The modern alphabet as we recognise it became standardised in the 17th century, by which time the language had mostly dropped old letters and ligatures such as thorn (þ), eth (ð), wynn (ƿ), yogh (ȝ), ethel (œ), and of course ash (æ). One figure we no longer use which lasted into the 19th century was the long s (ſ), which was used when an S occurred at the beginning of a word, or in the middle, well into the 19th century.

But now that we’ve settled on our current 26 letters, which are our favourites? There are two ways to consider this, which you can find detailed here. One of the first major studies into the frequency of letter use in English was conducted by Samuel Morse, as he needed to know how frequently each letter was used in order to assign the most common ones the simplest codes in Morse Code. He came up with E in first place, T second, and A, I, N, O, and S tied for third. Z was the least used, followed by J and X, Q, and K. However, as the article points out, this gave an indication of their frequency in terms of how often they’re used in communication, but not in terms of how frequent they are across all English words, regardless of how often those words are used. Adjusting for this, we find that E is still the most common, followed by A, R, I, and O. Q now brings up the rear, followed by J, Z, X, and V.

Probably nothing too surprising there. I think most people are aware that E is the most common letter, partly due to the 1939 Gadsby by the English writer Ernest Vincent Wright, which famously does not include the letter (avoiding using it as part of -ed in past-tense verbs being the trickiest part of the venture). Common as it is though, the letter E is not so commonly used to begin words, falling about halfway down that list. S is actually the most common letter used to begin words, as it can be used in consonant clusters to create a variety of different sounds (e.g. sc, sch, sh, sl, sp st, str etc.). I was initially a little surprised that Q is the least-commonly used letter, but then consider its constraint of normally having to be followed by U and another vowel.  A good Scrabble player of course, already knew which were the most- and least-common words, based on their value in the game.

Finally, while it would be quite a chore to discuss the etymology of each individual letter, the word alphabet itself is a curious one. It derives from the Greek ἀλφάβητος (alphabētos), which was made up of the first two letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha (A) and beta (B). These words in turn were actually derived from the Phoenician words aleph (ox) and bet (house). Which is interesting, but I think alphabet has a much better ring to it than oxhouse.

 

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