The English Alphabet

Yesterday we saw how English spelling has changed over time. But what about the English alphabet? Have we always written in the same way? The answer is, of course, no – the alphabet has changed several times over the years.

The earliest written texts we have of English were in Anglo-Saxon runes (a rune is a letter from an ancient alphabet). These runes were called the futhorc. It looked like this:


Let’s look at the first rune. Each rune stood for a sound, like <f>, but it also had a meaning in and of itself – wealth. The futhorc was used by various Germanic (ex: English, German, Frisian, Dutch, Scandinavian, Gothic) tribes at least as early as 200AD.

The Ruthwell Cross, a relatively famous preaching cross, was inscribed with runes from the futhorc.

ruthwell cross

It was from about 750AD. Obviously what was written using the futhorc was not the English of today; it was Old English.

Then came Insular Script, which was developed in Ireland. This was at first used solely in Ireland and Britain, but then it spread throughout Europe due to religion (Celtic Christianity).

insular script beowolf

These are the opening lines of Beowolf (~900AD). Again, this is Old English. Insular Script retained some of the runes from the futhorc, like ‘thorn’ (þ) and the barred d (ð).

After the Norman Conquest (1066AD invasion of England by Normandy), the Insular Script was replaced by the Carolingian Miniscule.

carolingian minuscule

And over time, this transformed through Gothic (like the New York Times header) and others into what we have today…


It’s so interesting to see the alterations of our writing system all laid out. At one time I could kind of read Middle and Old English, but I’ve forgotten – definitely something I want to relearn. It’s almost like speaking another language.

0 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. 1

    Incredible history and I am just in love with the lettering…I was big into Caligraphy over the years and to this day I love letter art!

    it’s simply beautiful.

  2. 2

    It really is like another language. It is so cool to see how it has changed. Do you think it will change again in thousands and thousands of years?

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