Monday, 20 September 2010

The 24 Letters Of The Alphabet

Sitting in a dusty stack of old and tatty books on one of the shelves in the corner of my office is a disintegrating copy of The Works Of Ben Jonson. My copy was published in 1879 and, in addition to the well-known plays such as Volpone, The Alchemist, Epicoene and Bartholomew Fair it also contains the text of Jonson’s ‘The English Grammar’.

Most of Jonson’s plays are still to be found in modern editions available in bookshops or as digitised texts on the internet. The Grammar, however, is something of a rarity and I am mightily pleased to have a copy of it.

I happened to be browsing through the opening pages of Jonson’s Grammar earlier today and one of the first things that struck me was this statement: “In our language we use these twenty and four letters.” Twenty-four? Not twenty-six? Where, I wondered, were the missing two?

Jonson goes on to list the letters of the alphabet minus the ‘j’ and the ‘u’. Unfortunately, my 19th Century edition of the Grammar ‘corrects’ the original spelling by putting ‘j’ and ‘u’ where the modern reader expects them to. I haven’t seen a copy of the original, uncorrected, version, so I uncertain whether the modern characters ‘j’ and ‘u’ were used. At any rate, even if they were, they would have been considered to be mere stylistic variants of the letters ‘i’ and ‘v’. If you look at facsimiles of the old editions Shakespeare plays, for example, you will see examples of both characters:

Jonson explains that Iis a letter of double power” since it is used both as a vowel and as a consonant: “For where it leads the sounding vowel, and beginneth the syllabe, it is ever a consonant; as in James, John, jest, jump, conjurer, perjured.

V, too, he says “is like our i, a letter of double power. As a vowel, it soundeth thin and sharp, as in use; thick and flat as in us.” But “When it followeth a sounding vowel in a syllabe it is a consonant; as in save, rave, prove, love etc. Which double force is not the unsteadfastness of our tongue, or uncertainty of our writing, but fallen upon us from Latin.

Ah, yes, Latin - a language in which the letter V also doubled-up as a U. This reminds me of the 1976 BBC dramatisation of Robert Graves’s books, I, Claudius, which was ‘Latinized’ in the title sequence as ‘I, Clavdivs’ - something which caused much mirthfulness amongst my chums at school who hilariously (for we were easily amused) insisted on pronouncing the name with consonant ‘v’s to rhyme with ‘Have-gives’!

According to the OED, the letter J in English, and in other modern languages, is a rather recent addition to the alphabet. Until the 17th century, the letter I represented both the vowel (as does the modern i) and the consonant (now replaced by the modern j) and that the letter j was originally a no more than a variant of i adopted by scribes.

The letter U has a longer history. While, in classical Latin, U and V are not differentiated, according to the OED, the rounded U can be seen in some 4th Century Latin manuscripts and also in Anglo-Saxon texts.

By the middle of the 18th century, the letters seem to have started to live schizophrenic lives, uncertain of whether they were each one letter with two sounds or two letters with their own distinct identities. Dr Samuel Johnson in his ‘Dictionary of the English Language’ (1755) groups words beginning with ‘J’ with those beginning with I; similarly, he groups words beginning with ‘U’ with those beginning with ‘V’. In essence, he treats ‘j’ as a type of ‘i’ and ‘u’ as a type of ‘v’. Of the letter ‘I’ he says: “I is in Englifh confidered both as vowel and confonant; though, fince the vowel and confonant differ in their form as well as found, they may be more properly accounted two letters.”

In my quotations I retain his use of ‘f’ for ‘s’ (and I shall leave discussion of that curiosity to a future date). He goes on to give examples of the ‘consonant’ version of ‘i’ in words such as ‘jade; and ‘jet’ where, he says, it has “invariably the fame found with that of ‘g’ in giant”.

By the way, you can download Dr Johnson’s Dictionary in two volumes here:

Here are Dr. Johnson’s comments on ‘V’ and ‘U’:
“V, Has two powers, expreffed modern Englifh by two characters, V confonant and U vowel, which ought to be confidered as two letters; but as they were long confounded while the two ufes were annexed to one form, the old cuftom ftill continues to be followed. .

“U, the vowel, has two founds; one clear, expreffed at other times by ou, as obtufe; the other clofe, and approaching to the Italian u, or Englifh Oo, as obtund.

“V, the confonant, has a found nearly approaching to thofe of b and f. With b it is by the Spaniards and Gafcons always confounded, and in the Runick alphabet is expreffed by the fame character with f, diftinguifhed only by a diacritical point. Its found in Englifh is uniform. It is never mute.”

So there you are: Ben Jonson didn’t use I and U at all. Samuel Johnson did use them in a fairly apologetic manner. And we use them all the time - which is why we have two more letters in our alphabet than Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare had in theirs.


  1. Please don't use f instead of ſ. They are different characters and look quite different: the crossbar on ſ (when there is one) does not extend to the right of the vertical.

    So write: "V, Has two powers, expreſſed in modern Engliſh by two characters, V conſonant and U vowel, which ought to be conſidered as two letters; but as they were long confounded while the two uſes were annexed to one form, the old cuſtom ſtill continues to be followed."

    If you don't want to copy and paste ſ, you can also write it in HTML as ſ.

  2. I wasn't aware of the ASCII code for the long S. That said, having looked closely at a magnified view of the Johnson dictionary and compared its character with the one displayed using the ASCII code you provide, I would have to say that I don't think the two look at all similar. In fact, in spite of the fact that the cross-bar on the f extends to the right, whereas it only extends to the left in Johnson's dictionary, it seems to me that the two characters look quite similar. Representing older characters in modern computer fonts (is there an ASCII character for the thorn?) is always rather hit and miss, of course. I still have some problems with modern Welsh characters such as ^ over w. But that's another story...

  3. This opens up an interesting topic to which I have not previously given any consideration. By the time the US Constitution was written, for example, it seems that no distinction was made between the long S and the f character. Examine the hand-written text and you'll see that in words such as "blessings" "congress" the first s of a pair is written as f - Blefsings and congrefs.

    It also seems that by that date, the long s only occurs as the first of a pair of s characters. I must look into this. It might be interesting to find out a bit more about the evolution of characters in both hand written script and printed texts.

  4. It is uncomfortable to see the 'f' for long 's' at the end of words, as in the title above. Long 's' was only for use initially and medially.
    Incidentally, the combination of 'fs' led to the modern German double 's' that looks like a beta.