Language insights

The Origin of the English Alphabet Revealed by the Smallest Elements

Carl Hill 14 Jul 2020
The Origin of the English Alphabet Revealed by the Smallest Elements

Understanding the origin of the English alphabet is essential as it allows you to understand how many letters are in the English alphabet and why it is so.

The word “alphabet” itself is the compound that came from the Greek language. This characteristic is the perfect embodiment of the origin of the English alphabet and explanation of its essence. Different languages’ elements contributed to shaping English alphabet into the modern commonly accepted standard form that came along since beginning in approximately the 7th century AD till modern 26-letter structure.

How Many Letters Are in The Alphabet and What is it Exactly?

Before diving into the ocean of historical facts one needs to clearly understand what alphabet is exactly and what is its main purpose. This system is the set of specific and standard written symbols that correspond to spoken phonemes and allow them to form words and sentences, eventually contributing to the need for human translation services as every language has its own alphabet.

The numbers of letters also differ from language to language since it may be equal to either 13 letters as in Hawaiian Braille alphabet or 58 as in Hindi alphabet. The English language has 26 letters in the alphabet that represent vowels and consonants.

What Was the Most Recent Letter Added to The English Alphabet?

There was a time when inhabitants of the British Isles used the runic alphabet called futhorc. It was brought to these lands by Germanic tribes who conquered and mostly assimilated locals. Those tribes are now known as Anglo-Saxons and they also utilized many features that remained in medieval Britain since the Roman rule that ended in the 5th century AD.

Old English

Using both Anglo-Saxon runes and Latin script for some time and subsequently replacing runes by Roman letters with mutual influence of both writing systems resulted in development of the Old English alphabet that has written records confirming its elements’ order dating back to the 11th century AD. 24 letters in this alphabet came from Latin one while 5 English letters and their combinations as the result of runic alphabet’s influence remained valid. Some borrowed runic letters such as thorn (þ) or wynn (ƿ) were replaced by digraphs that are not included as separate letters or turned into specific ones that did not exist before, such as “th” and “w” sounds respectively. Letter combinations such as (æ) and (œ) were also included in the alphabet.

Read also: Where to find accurate Latin translation services?

Modern English

This period in English alphabet’s development history begun after Norman invasion in 1066 AD and subsequent use of Middle English during the next two centuries. Starting of Modern English form of language development is usually associated with the 14th century AD. Many Old English letters became obsolete during these stages or turned into different letters, as happened with thorn (þ) being replaced by digraph th, which is not the part of alphabet though, or wynn (ƿ) that eventually became modern independent letter w. Distinguishing j from i and u from v begun during the 16th century, at the beginning of the Modern English period. When you hire translation experts in a reputable academic translation agency, they do know all those changes and relevant background so that completed texts are as accurate as humanly possible.


An impressive list of English dialects represents almost every part of the world so that English alphabet is used not only in Standard English, also known as Received Pronunciation and which is used when you need certified legal translation services, but in multiple variations of this language as well. The major forms of English native dialects are North American English, Canadian English, and Australian English. Many countries that experienced strong influence from Great Britain or the United States’ side developed specific and somewhat unique dialects, such as Indian English, Hiberno-English dialects, or Philippine English. Usually, the differences are observed not in the number of letters in the alphabet but on pronunciation level as well as vocabulary and grammar.

How Many Letters Are In The English Alphabet?

Modern world is perfectly aware of what are the 26 letters of the alphabet since English has become the primary global language and the one that is associated with globalization-related technologies. The majority of English language learners are not particularly interested in knowing who invented the alphabet or what is the history behind every letter.

  • A. Linguists trace the origin of this letter back to Egyptian hieroglyphs, specifically the one representing ox head. Later on, it can be observed in the Phoenician alphabet that served as the basis for the Greek and Latin ones where it obtained modern inverted form.
  • B. Its present form came a long way from the Egyptian pictogram denoting “shelter”, rune from Elder Futhark, and adaptations by Greeks and Romans.
  • C. It has the Phoenician origin, where it had a different shape with the angle, and came into English through Latin.
  • D. Experts argue that this letter was inspired by Egyptian hieroglyph denoting “door” and it was later developed in Semitic letter Dalet that, in turn, was borrowed by Greek and Latin alphabets.
  • E. Similarly to many other letters, it came into English through Latin alphabet that adopted Greek letter Epsilon, originating from Semitic. Original Egyptian hieroglyph that served as the source had a form of a man with raised hands. Currently, letter E is the most used letter in English which any of document translation companies can tell you for sure.
  • F. The Phoenician letter Waw was adopted by the Greeks but it represented a different sound, that was later changed to /f/ when the Romans borrowed Greek letter, eventually allowing it to enter English.
  • G. In the form we know it today, G appeared in Rome around 200-300 BCE being adapted from Greek alphabet. H. It appeared in English via rather similar way as many other letters – from Egyptian hieroglyph denoting “fence” through Semitic, Phoenician, and then Greek and Latin writing systems.
  • I. Being adopted from Phoenician Yodh letter, has changed its form in the Greek alphabet and turned into an Iota letter. Its current form as the straight line is similar to Etruscan one.
  • J. Appeared as the separate letter clearly distinguished from I in English alphabet only in the 16th century. Its development was under significant influence of Romance languages, particularly French and Spanish.
  • K. Another letter that proves multiple sources of English language origin as it came from the Semitic letter Kaf, which, in turn, originated from Egyptian hieroglyph standing for “hand”. It appeared in English through Latin alphabet that utilized Greek letter Kappa.
  • L. It was brought to English alphabet thanks to Romans who adopted it from the Phoenicians via Greek alphabet.
  • M. Its original source is Egyptian hieroglyph that represented concept of “water”. The current appearance did not chance since Roman rule.
  • N. While its development started from Egyptian hieroglyph “snake” that represented a different sound, a long way through Phoenician, Greek, Arabic, and Latin alphabets shaped its current representation. Only linguists could explain all processes but localization service can surely help if there is a translation task of similar complexity.
  • O. It did not change its original shape much since the original Egyptian hieroglyph looked like the eye and denoted the same concept.
  • P. It looked completely differently in Semitic and its current form was developed much later by Romans. Greek letter Pi that represents the same sound is more similar to modern Cyrillic alphabet. Q. Came from the Etruscans language via Roman adaptation.
  • R. Also appeared in English alphabet thanks to Romans, who adopted it from Phoenician letter Resh.
  • S. It was brought to English alphabet by Romans who adapted Greek letter Sigma (Σ) and changed its shape.
  • T. One of the most consistent letters that had similar shape and represented the same sound in Phoenician, Etruscan, Greek. And Latin alphabets.
  • U, V, and Y. Along with F, these three have the same origin that can be traced back to the Phoenician alphabet and letter Waw. Distinguishing U from V begun in the 14th century.
  • W. Was developed as separate letter from the digraph VV beginning in the 14th century and the process finished approximately in the 17th century.
  • X. This one has Greek origin but was brought in the English alphabet by Romans.
  • Z. Derived from the Greek alphabet as well where the letter Zeta was borrowed by Romans.

It is important to remember that British alphabet does not include digraphs that are widely used in the language such as ch, th, gh, wh, zh, and others.

Read also: Features all accurate certified Arabic translation services should offer.

Why One Need to Know History Behind English Letters?

Apart from developing one’s memory and learning skills, studying history of alphabet’s development gives deeper knowledge about the world around us since every letter is the result of cultural influence and complex historical processes. Professional translators achieve outstanding results in their work because they are aware of all this information. Learning a language without understanding other languages’ influences is incomplete and prevents one from reaching the level of native speaker’s knowledge. While majority of people may ignore this requirement, language experts could not do that. 


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