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
Languages
Time period
~1500 to present
Parent systems
Child systems
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. It originated around the 7th century from the Latin script. Since then, letters have been added or removed to give the current Modern English alphabet of 26 letters (the same as in the ISO basic Latin alphabet):

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 that requires no diacritics for native words. However, a diaeresis may be used to distinguish two vowels with separate pronunciation from a double vowel, such as "coöperation".[nb 1][1] Written English does have a number of digraphs and some longer multigraphs, particular cases of which may be called diacritics.

Letters

The names of the letters are rarely spelled out. Some compound words (e.g., tee-shirt, deejay, emcee, okay, etc.), derived forms (e.g., exed out, effing, to eff and blind, aitchless, etc.) and objects named after letters (e.g., em in printing and wye in railroading) may be written with the letter names. The spellings listed below are from the Oxford English Dictionary. Plurals of consonant names are formed by adding -s (e.g., bees, efs, ems) or -es in the cases of aitch, ess, and ex (i.e., aitches, esses, exes). Plurals of vowel names add -es (i.e., aes, ees, ies, oes, ues), but these are rare. Most commonly, the letter (generally in capitalized form) and not its name is used, in which case plurals just add -s.

Letter Name Name pronunciation Frequency
Modern English Latin Modern English Latin Old French Middle English
A a ā /, æ/[nb 2] /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 ef f/ /ɛf/ /ɛf/ /ɛf/ 2.23%
eff as a verb
G gee / /ɡeː/ /dʒeː/ /dʒeː/ 2.02%
H aitch / /haː/ > /ˈaha/ > /ˈakːa/ /ˈaːtʃə/ /aːtʃ/ 6.09%
haitch[nb 3] /
I i ī / /iː/ /iː/ /iː/ 6.97%
J jay / [nb 4] 0.15%
jy[nb 5] /
K kay / /kaː/ /kaː/ /kaː/ 0.77%
L el el l/ /ɛl/ /ɛl/ /ɛl/ 4.03%
ell as a verb
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 6] / /kuː/ /kyː/ /kiw/ 0.10%
R ar er ɑːr/ /ɛr/ /ɛr/ /ɛr/ > /ar/ 5.99%
or[nb 7] ɔːr/
S ess es s/ /ɛs/ /ɛs/ /ɛs/ 6.33%
es- in compounds[nb 8]
T tee / /teː/ /teː/ /teː/ 9.06%
U u ū / /uː/ /yː/ /iw/ 2.76%
V vee / 0.98%
W double-u /[nb 9] 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 10] zēta d/ /ˈzeːta/ /ˈzɛːdə/ /zɛd/ 0.07%
zee[nb 11] /

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; izzard, from the Romance phrase i zed or i zeto "and Z" said when reciting the alphabet; and zee, an American levelling of zed by analogy with other consonants.

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.[2]

Ampersand

The ampersand (&) has sometimes appeared at the end of the English alphabet, as in Byrhtferð's list of letters in 1011.[3] 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).

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