Where is the English alphabet defined? And more

No, don’t tell me “the dictionary.” I want to know if there is a standard, authoritative source for what are the letters in the English alpahabet and how are they formed. Or is it all just by convention, by popular use, and there is no authoritative definition? I’m looking for something like how at one time the meter was defined by a metal bar in a glass case in France. Who says that a capital A has to have two lines joining at the top with a bridge between? Who says?

Bonus round: Word usage evolves continually; new words are coined and old ones die off, existing words take on new meanings. But when was the last time there was a change in the English alphabet? And how was this change documented and accepted? I seem to remember[sup]1[/sup] that there were the letters thorn and eth; was their dropping the most recent change? How did their absence become “official”? No doubt during the transition some dictionaries omitted them while others insisted on retaining them. So who decided that kindergarteners could stop singing them in the Alphabet Song?


  1. No, you smartass, I remember *reading *about them :rolleyes:

Technically, it’s the Latin alphabet, since it was first used in Latin, and has been used in some other non-obscure languages apart from English.

In Latin, it had 23 letters – A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X Y Z – and the lower case form of V is u.

The big changes in English were:
(1) the split of I into I for the vowel and J for the consonant
(2) the split of V into U for the vowel and V for the consonant
(3) adding a new letter W, which was originally written as “VV” or “uu”, i.e. “double u”.

The most recent change of any significance has been to drop the long s, which looked like “f” but without the cross-bar. The two forms of lower-case s became one towards the end of the eighteenth century.

And much earlier English had some special letters for English sounds not found in Latin, such as ash, eth, thorn. wynn and yogh, which were dropped in the medieval period. They were replaced generally by “a”, “th”, “w” and “gh”.

Ash: æ, Æ
Eth: ð,Ð
Thorn: þ, Þ

Eth and Thorn are the two sounds now represented by “Th”. Eth is the th sound in “this”, thorn is the th sound in “thick”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_alphabet

Nobody. In fact, in many type faces, the cap A does not follow this convention.

The only “authority” is legibility. If you can understand what a particular character is, then it’s a valid character. As a matter of fact, with many type faces, the individual letters aren’t necessarily legible, except in context. For example, in many “Old English” fonts, the cap “T” might be confused with a “C,” but you know what it is because of the context. Or in some fonts, an “O” looks like a “0” (zero), but there’s rarely any confusion because of the context.

There were no dictionaries during the time period that we lost thorn and eth. Dictionaries were a later invention.

And as for "how did their absence bcome “official”, well, there’s no “official” alphabet. We’ve never had a body overseeing the Latin (*not *the English) alphabet. That’s why various European languages are able to add all sorts of accent marks to letters and consider them *different *letters. And Icelandic has even kept thorn and eth.

A dictionary is as close to an answer as there is. For the majority of its existence, there weren’t even dictionaries for the English language and neither spelling nor sense were standardized in any written medium. Everyone who could write largely chose his own spellings, and the sense of words was maintained by common consensus. This is, in fact, still how it works: Dictionaries, the rantings of fools aside, are descriptive, not prescriptive.

Don’t forget that the ampersand “&” was once considered a letter, I believe in the Middle Ages, and that dropping it as a letter was the last major change.

This is true today. However, earlier dictionaries were most definitely intended to be prescriptive. And between Johnson’s dictionary in England and Noah Webster’s dictionary in the U.S., words started taking on standardized spellings and usages, though the latter never standardized for very long.

The only real change in the English alphabet since the time of dictionaries has been the disappearance of the medial or long s.

Orthography is the set of symbols that make up a language. Wiki has a decent intro to the subject on its English orthography page.

I don’t think this was ever true. I need a cite.

A digraph, not a letter. & is a stylized way of writing the letters “et”. Those letters by themselves are the Latin word for “and” (hence the modern usage), but I’ve heard of medieval texts which used & whenever the letters e and t appeared together.

The Alphabet Song came along several hundred years after these letters were first added and then dropped from the English (Latin) alphabet.

The song was first copyrighted by Charles Bradlee, music publisher, in Boston, USA in 1835. The music is from Mozart’s variations for piano; the same melody is used in various other songs. See Wikipedia for more details: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alphabet_song

Technically, the 26 letter one used in English is both the English alphabet and t he Dutch alphabet. Why? Simply because that’s the alphabet used to write those particular languages. The shorter one you refer to in your post is the Latin alphabet. I’ve heard and seen often the term Latinate Alphabets to refer to all the alphabets which use the original Latin alphabet and its descendants. A good source for information on alphabets and other writing systems is Omniglot.

Well, the current general standard for the encoding of all alphabets and scripts is Unicode, and they refer to the alphabet used in most European languages, and some other languages such as Indonesian and Vietnamese, as “Latin” – though English, with its less reliance on diacritics and special characters, can be written in “Basic Latin”.

It does make sense to talk about the German alphabet, or the Spanish alphabet, or the Vietnamese alphabet, because they each use different special characters or diacritics, and often have different sorting rules, but it also makes sense to talk about the Latin alphabet as encompassing them all, rather than just the alphabet used to write the Classical Latin language.

There is no such Official body for the English Language. France has such an Official body, there are law regarding the use of the French language and no doubt the alphabet.

But as you can see by your drop-down menu of fonts, there are many for English which are pretty bizzare. Use of some of them may be illegal in France for all I know- or care. :stuck_out_tongue: But in America the worst thing that will happen is that dudes won’t understand you and think you’re a git.

For more details, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tongue_in_cheek :slight_smile:

Dude, the worst just happened. What’s a “git”?

If you’re implying that your alphabet song comment was supposed to be tongue in cheek, then use a smilie from now on. I also took it seriously in the context of your post.

For most children in the USA the way the alphabet is defined is by your Kindergarden and First Grade teachers and the textbook that they use. The publishers of those text (along with shows like Seaseme Street) know that if you get them while they are young enough they will just accept it for the rest of thier lives, making it a defacto standard. Don’t have time to google right now, but I’m sure that the textbook people have a standard that they adhere to.

Dicitionary.com sez:

DrDeth may have a keen appreciation for British media.

“git - a person who is deemed to be despicable or contemptible; “only a rotter would do that”; “kill the rat”; “throw the bum out”; “you cowardly little pukes!”; “the British call a contemptible person a `git’”
dirty dog, lowlife, puke, rotter, scum bag, skunk, so-and-so, stinker, stinkpot, bum, crumb, rat
disagreeable person, unpleasant person - a person who is not pleasant or agreeable”

My meaning was along the lines of “pretentious and silly”.

SIMULPOST! :cool: