The Farlex Grammar Book > English Spelling and Pronunciation > The Alphabet > Other Letters, Marks, and Symbols
Other Letters, Marks, and Symbols
English contains many words that it adapted from different languages from around the world, especially Latin, Greek, French, and German. As the language evolved, certain typographical features from those languages were gradually changed or eliminated from modern English orthography, though some still appear in written English today.
The most common of these are ligatures and diacritics; we’ll briefly go over both of these here, but you can continue on to their individual sections to learn more. There are also a few other outdated letters that overlapped with modern English until relatively recently, which we’ll look at further on in this section.
A ligature is a combination of two or more letters joined into a single unit.
The most well-known of these originated in Latin as distinct letters within the language: Æ/æ (used in words like encyclopædia, leukæmia, and pædiatric) and Œ/œ (used in words like diarrhœa, œsophagus, and manœuvre). In modern English, these two letters were eventually divided into AE and OE, respectively, and eventually reduced to just E in American English.
There is another Latin ligature that is used in English today: &, a conjoined E and T known as an ampersand, which is used to mean “and” in informal or stylized writing. For example:
- “I work at Daniels & Jones Insurance Co.”
- “My brother loves hip-hop, but I’m more of an R&B [rhythm and blues] fan myself.”
- “Please send me a report on profit & loss for this quarter.”
Finally, there is one last ligature that actually ended up becoming part of the modern English alphabet: W, two Us (originally two Vs) joined into a single letter.
A diacritic (or diacritical mark) is a mark added to a letter, usually to indicate a specific pronunciation of that letter.
Of the various languages using the Latin alphabet, English is one of the few that generally does not use diacritical marks, other than in certain foreign loanwords (especially from French) whose diacritics have been retained.
The most common of these that appears in English is called an acute accent. For example:
While this is the most common, other diacritics are sometimes used as well, such as the grave accent (à la carte, vis-à-vis, voilà), the circumflex (crêpe, pâté, tête-à-tête), the cedilla (façade, garçon, soupçon), the tilde (jalapeño, piñata, señora), and the dieresis (doppelgänger, Noël, über).
Other Outdated Letters
In addition to ligatures and diacritics, there are two other outdated letters that were used in English until relatively recently. These are the “long S” and the letter thorn, though the latter has only been used in very specific circumstances. Let’s look at both.
Long S ( ſ )
The long S ( ſ ), also called a medial S or descending S, is a form of the lowercase S that was once used in certain locations in a word.
This older form of the lowercase S began in Roman cursive, originally looking more like a checkmark ( ✓ ) or the mathematical symbol for a square root ( √ ). This was eventually straightened and elongated, forming the basis for the symbol used in the International Phonetic Alphabet for the sound made by SH ( ʃ ) and the mathematical symbol for integrals ( ∫ ). As printing presses became more common, the bottom portion of the symbol was cut off to accommodate typeface limitations, resulting in ſ (not to be confused with a lowercase f or r).
Traditionally, long S was used in the middle or at the beginning of a word (except when an initial S was capitalized). If a word had two Ss, only the first would be long. ſ was also normally not used in front of a lowercase f, due to their similar appearance. Here are some examples:
- transfer→transfer (“short” S is used instead before an F)
In the late-18th century, ſ was only used in the middle of words when it appeared before another lowercase s, as in Congreſs or aſseſs—words like son or intense would use the standard “short” S instead. Near the beginning of the 19th century, printing presses stopped using long S altogether; it was still used in handwriting until the late 19th century, at which point it disappeared completely.
Thorn ( Þ, þ )
The thorn (Þ, lowercase þ) was a letter used in Old English to represent the sounds /ð/ and /θ/.
Over time, the shape of this character became indistinguishable from the letter Y, and, during the 14th century, the sounds /ð/ and /θ/ began to be represented by the consonant digraph TH. This led to the thorn eventually being discarded from English altogether.
However, there is a curious remnant of the letter thorn that still exists in modern English in the form of the pseudo-archaic phrase ye olde. This clichéd phrase is sometimes used in the names of shops, restaurants, and pubs to suggest something quaintly old-fashioned (as in “Ye Olde Sweet Shoppe”). However, it is not using the second-person plural pronoun ye, but in fact the definite article the spelled with a thorn (graphically converted to a Y, which Þ eventually came to resemble when it was still in use).
This has led to such names being mistakenly pronounced like the second person plural pronoun ye (/ji/), when in fact it should be pronounced the same as the definite article the (/ði/).
Other than this one specific instance, the letter Þ is completely extinct in modern English.
Get all volumes of The Farlex Grammar Book in paperback or eBook.