English alphabet

English alphabet
Dax sample.png
An English pangram displaying all the characters in context, in Dax Regular typeface.
Type
Logographic (non-phonetic ideographic) and alphabetic
LanguagesEnglish
Written English
Time period
~1500 to present
Parent systems
Child systems
ISO basic Latin alphabet
Cherokee syllabary (in part)
Scots alphabet
Osage alphabet
SENĆOŦEN alphabet
Numerous other Latin-based orthographies.
DirectionLeft-to-right
ISO 15924Latn, 215
Unicode alias
Latin
U+0000 to U+007E Basic Latin and punctuation

The modern English alphabet is a Latin alphabet consisting of 26 letters, each having an upper- and lower-case form. The same letters constitute the ISO basic Latin alphabet. The alphabet's current form originated in about the 7th century from the Latin script. Since then, various letters have been added, or removed, to give the current Modern English alphabet of 26 letters:

The exact shape of printed letters varies depending on the typeface (and font), and the shape of handwritten letters can differ significantly from the standard printed form (and between individuals), especially when written in cursive style.

English is the only major modern European language requiring no diacritics for native words (although a diaeresis is used in some loanwords such as "coöperation" or "naïve").[1][2] Written English does, however, have a number of digraphs.

Letters

The names of the letters are rarely spelled out, except when used in derivations or compound words (for example tee-shirt, deejay, emcee, okay, aitchless, etc.), derived forms (for example exed out, effing, to eff and blind, etc.), and in the names of objects named after letters (for example em (space) in printing and wye (junction) in railroading). The forms listed below are from the Oxford English Dictionary. Vowels stand for themselves, and consonants usually have the form consonant + ee or e + consonant (e.g. bee and ef). The exceptions are the letters aitch, jay, kay, cue, ar, ess (but es- in compounds ), double u, wye, and zed. Plurals of consonants end in -s (bees, efs, ems) or, in the cases of aitch, ess, and ex, in -es (aitches, esses, exes). Plurals of vowels end in -es (aes, ees, ies, oes, ues); these are rare. All letters may stand for themselves, generally in capitalized form (okay or OK, emcee or MC), and plurals may be based on these (aes or As, cees or Cs, etc.)

Letter Name Name pronunciation Frequency
Modern English Latin Modern
English
Latin Old French Middle
English
A a ā /, æ/[nb 1] /aː/ /aː/ /aː/ 8.17%
B bee / /beː/ /beː/ /beː/ 1.49%
C cee / /keː/ /tʃeː/ > /tseː/ > /seː/ /seː/ 2.78%
D dee / /deː/ /deː/ /deː/ 4.25%
E e ē / /eː/ /eː/ /eː/ 12.70%
F ef (eff as a verb) ef f/ /ɛf/ /ɛf/ /ɛf/ 2.23%
G gee / /ɡeː/ /dʒeː/ /dʒeː/ 2.02%
H aitch / /haː/ > /ˈaha/ > /ˈakːa/ /ˈaːtʃə/ /aːtʃ/ 6.09%
haitch[nb 2] /
I i ī / /iː/ /iː/ /iː/ 6.97%
J jay / [nb 3] 0.15%
jy[nb 4] /
K kay / /kaː/ /kaː/ /kaː/ 0.77%
L el or ell el l/ /ɛl/ /ɛl/ /ɛl/ 4.03%
M em em m/ /ɛm/ /ɛm/ /ɛm/ 2.41%
N en en n/ /ɛn/ /ɛn/ /ɛn/ 6.75%
O o ō / /oː/ /oː/ /oː/ 7.51%
P pee / /peː/ /peː/ /peː/ 1.93%
Q cue[nb 5] / /kuː/ /kyː/ /kiw/ 0.10%
R ar er ɑːr/ /ɛr/ /ɛr/ /ɛr/ > /ar/ 5.99%
or[nb 6] ɔːr/
S ess (es-)[nb 7] es s/ /ɛs/ /ɛs/ /ɛs/ 6.33%
T tee / /teː/ /teː/ /teː/ 9.06%
U u ū / /uː/ /yː/ /iw/ 2.76%
V vee / 0.98%
W double-u /[nb 8] 2.36%
X ex ex s/ /ɛks/ /iks/ /ɛks/ 0.15%
ix /ɪks/
Y wye / /hyː/ ui, gui ? /wiː/ ? 1.97%
/iː/
ī graeca /iː ˈɡraɪka/ /iː ɡrɛːk/
Z zed[nb 9] zēta d/ /ˈzeːta/ /ˈzɛːdə/ /zɛd/ 0.07%
zee[nb 10] /

Etymology

The names of the letters are for the most part direct descendants, via French, of the Latin (and Etruscan) names. (See Latin alphabet: Origins.)

The regular phonological developments (in rough chronological order) are:

  • palatalization before front vowels of Latin /k/ successively to /tʃ/, /ts/, and finally to Middle French /s/. Affects C.
  • palatalization before front vowels of Latin /ɡ/ to Proto-Romance and Middle French /dʒ/. Affects G.
  • fronting of Latin /uː/ to Middle French /yː/, becoming Middle English /iw/ and then Modern English /juː/. Affects Q, U.
  • the inconsistent lowering of Middle English /ɛr/ to /ar/. Affects R.
  • the Great Vowel Shift, shifting all Middle English long vowels. Affects A, B, C, D, E, G, H, I, K, O, P, T, and presumably Y.

The novel forms are aitch, a regular development of Medieval Latin acca; jay, a new letter presumably vocalized like neighboring kay to avoid confusion with established gee (the other name, jy, was taken from French); vee, a new letter named by analogy with the majority; double-u, a new letter, self-explanatory (the name of Latin V was ū); wye, of obscure origin but with an antecedent in Old French wi; zee, an American leveling of zed by analogy with the majority; and izzard, from the Romance phrase i zed or i zeto "and Z" said when reciting the alphabet.

Some groups of letters, such as pee and bee, or em and en, are easily confused in speech, especially when heard over the telephone or a radio communications link. Spelling alphabets such as the ICAO spelling alphabet, used by aircraft pilots, police and others, are designed to eliminate this potential confusion by giving each letter a name that sounds quite different from any other.

Frequencies

The letter most commonly used in English is E. The least used letter is Z. The frequencies shown in the table may differ in practice according to the type of text.[3]

Ampersand

The ampersand (&) has sometimes appeared at the end of the English alphabet, as in Byrhtferð's list of letters in 1011.[4] Historically, the figure is a ligature for the letters Et. In English and many other languages it is used to represent the word and and occasionally the Latin word et, as in the abbreviation &c (et cetera).

Apostrophe

The apostrophe (‘) is not considered part of the English alphabet, but is used to contract English words. A few pairs of words, such as its (belonging to it) and it's (it is or it has), were (form of 'to be') and we're (we are), and shed (to get rid of) and she'd (she would or she had) are distinguished in writing only by the presence or absence of an apostrophe. The apostrophe also distinguishes the possessive endings -'s and -s' from the common plural ending -s, a practice introduced in the 18th century; before, all three endings were written -s, which could lead to confusion (as in, the Apostles words).[5]

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