This is a continuation of my series on the history of the English language (with an emphasis on modern English). In today’s chapter I’ll be covering the transition from the Ancient Latin alphabet from which modern spellings derive to the Latin alphabet used by the Romans. The process started with the introduction of a Roman letter (e) in the third century. Then it went through the development of the Latin alphabet by the Greeks in the fourth century, and finally to the introduction of the Latin alphabet by the Romans to the English-speaking world in the sixth century. The development is illustrated by the chart above, which shows the relationship between Latin and other medieval languages and how the transition from the Greek and Greek-derived letters to the Latin alphabet was effected over time.
The process of changing from one alphabet to another is not entirely smooth and there were a number of points at which things got very bumpy. I’m particularly interested in the following examples:
The letter Þ has been changed into the letter ö in English. (Although the spelling of this change is slightly different, both use æ.)
is changed into the letter in English. (Although the spelling of this change is slightly different, both use æ.) In German, we have the letter ÿ, pronounced exactly how its Latin counterpart sounded.
So let’s take a look at the chart below so you can get a better understanding of the evolution of all the various medieval Latin alphabets and get to the English/Latin transition from their beginnings (or, should that be the case, their beginnings. ) Let’s start with the alphabet beginning with the letter Þ, now called “a,” and move to the letter ß, pronounced “eh.” Remember that the pronunciation of every letter is a variant of that of the Latin alphabet except for the letter a, which has been replaced into the letter O. You’ll also note that the letters in the middle of the chart, beginning with the Greek letter Α and ending with the Latin letter O, are both pronounced exactly as they are in the Latin alphabet. So, to make matters simple, let’s say, for argument’s sake, that we have the vowels of the modern English alphabet and the Latin letters, respectively. The vowels are all the same, so let’s just ignore them. It’s much easier to compare the Latin and English vowels when we divide and conquer, with the vowels of the Latin alphabet dividing into the letters æ and ß. Here
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