Letters of our Alphabet
We think of our alphabet as being static over the ages as if it had appeared full blown and perfect at some time in the past, and never needed modification. However, we need only look back about 200 years to find that our alphabet hadn’t reached it’s present form until the end of the 18th century.

In 18th century written and printed materials, particularly those from the first half of the century, we often encounter two letters that are not in our current alphabet, while noting that two of our current letters are sometimes missing . . . an unusual situation, to be sure.

To begin our investigation of the changes in our alphabet, let’s look first at the two missing letters. To do so, we need to look back to the origins of our alphabet.

Prior to the invention of the printing press, alphabets abounded. Each scribe or writing master might use an alphabet of his own invention, creating a form of job security, since no one untutored in the particular alphabet could read it. Many court documents were written in a form known as “Gothic Secretary”, but even there, variation abounded.

The printing press made books more common and, more importantly, more affordable. (Imagine the cost of having a book handwritten!) Once books were available to wide strata of the populace, more people began to learn to read. Demand soared. One of the necessary ingredients toward filling the demand for more and more printed materials was a legible typeface.

A particularly legible, and widely recognized, letterform was that designed by the Romans. Examples abounded in the many Roman inscriptions. Trajan’s column in Rome is often cited as the perfect example of Roman letters. Widely used in medieval times and the 18th century, “Roman” fonts are still in common use today.

roman alphabet

However, certain characteristics of the Roman alphabet had to be taken into account, one of which was the missing letters. Roman alphabets had no “U” and no “J”, their places being filled by “V” and “I” respectively. The word “JUSTICE” would have been written “IVSTICE” by the ancient Romans. You may have seen “Romanized” inscriptions on Courthouses that perpetuate this usage.

These dual-purpose letters were found in 18th century printed material through the mid-18th century, at which time they began to be replaced by “J” and “U”. (It is useful to look at the alphabets on samplers to see if “J” and “U” are present. If not, it may be an indicator that the sampler was created prior to the mid 1700’s.)

That handles the missing letters, but what about the two additional letters that are now missing? Both of those letters crept into the English alphabet from the alphabet forms used by the Saxons. They are the “Thorn” and the “Eth”. You have all seen both of them, although you might not have known them by name.

The Thorn is that Y-shaped letter often encountered in pseudo Old English business names, e.g. Ye Olde Gifte Shoppe. That letter in “Ye” is not a “Y”, but a Thorn. It was pronounced TH, thereby making the name of our example business begin with “The”, not “Ye”. The Thorn is also found in abbreviations such as Ys, and Yt., representing “this” and “that”.

The thorn began disappearing about 1750, although I have seen vestiges of it in handwritten items as late as the early 19th century, doubtlessly written by older people who had learned the use of the Thorn in their youth.

The second Saxon letter, now departed, that was to be found in the 18th century, is the Eth. The Eth is the letter that looks like a lower case f, but obviously replaces an s. If you’ll examine it closely in printed form, you’ll note that the cross bar doesn’t extend over to the right hand side of the upright stroke. We have a phonetic reminder of the Eth in the King James Version of the Bible in the familiar words, “He leadeth me beside still waters, He restoreth my soul.”

lowercase s

In cursive, the Eth is an entirely different letterform, somewhat like an elongated figure 8. Some people refer to it as the “long s”.

In English, the Eth had no capital form, that being supplanted by the capital S. In the 18th century, it was no longer used as a final consonant, although the Bible verses indicate that it had been earlier. In printed form the Eth may be doubled, while in cursive form the doubling is often made up of one Eth followed by an s. The Eth was longer-lived than the Thorn, being still found in cursive writing in the second decade of the 19th century, again, most likely in writings of older people.

Printed English of the 18th century is also filled with ligatures that are combinations of letters that were printed in a joined form. They are almost always recognizable. The most common combinations are c & t and s & t, although there is a full set of Eth ligatures, combining the Eth with h, i, l, and t, as well as with another Eth.

ligatures set