Want to meet two extinct letters of the alphabet? Learn what “thorn” and “wynn” sounded like

The English alphabet, as you likely know, is made up of 26 letters.

But it wasn’t always that way.

Before we get to which letters were late additions, let’s explain a bit about Old English. English was first written in the Anglo-Saxon futhorc runic alphabet, also known as Anglo-Saxon. The Angles and Saxons came from Germany and settled in Britain in the fifth century. The region they inhabited became known as “Angle-land,” or “England.”

Eventually, Christian missionaries introduced the Latin alphabet, which ultimately replaced Anglo-Saxon. But for some time, the alphabet included the letters of the Latin alphabet, some symbols (like the ampersand), and some letters of Old English.

As Modern English evolved, the Old English letters were dropped or replaced.

(Our trusty alphabet isn’t the only part of language that has changed — October used to be the eighth month, and September the seventh. What happened? Find out here.)

Here’s an example: In Old English, a letter called “thorn” represented the “th” sound (as in “that”) in Modern English. In the Latin alphabet, the “y” was the symbol that most closely resembled the character that represented thorn. So, thorn was dropped and “y” took its place. (But is “y” a vowel or a consonant? We explore the dilemma here.)

That is why the word “ye,” as in “Ye Olde Booke Shoppe,” is an archaic spelling of “the.”

The Old English letter “wynn” was replaced by “uu,” which eventually developed into the modern w. (It really is a double u.)

The letters “u” and “j” didn’t join what we know as the alphabet until the sixteenth century.

Now consider ancient history influences days of the week. Who is the attractive goddess that Friday is named for? Here’s that odd and entertaining story.