38 Letters of the Alphabet
Daniel’s post on the letter Z certainly had the readership hopping on April 1! Most readers quickly got the joke and joined in on the April foolery, but a few seemed to be really annoyed with us. The comments are still coming in and make enjoyable reading.
A “perfect” alphabet would have one letter for every speech sound. As everybody knows, and nearly everybody loves to point out, English does not enjoy a perfect alphabet.
Of the 26 letters in the English alphabet, only 14 stand for a single speech sound:
b, d, h, j, k, l, m, n, p, r, t, v, w, z
If we want to think about getting rid of “unnecessary” letters, the best candidate is not z, but c. C has no sound of its own, but is an alternate spelling for the sounds /k/ and /s/ as in camp and cent.
The next least necessary letter is q. Alone it represents the sound /k/. With a u it stands for the sound /kw/: Iraq, queen.
Of the five remaining consonant letters, f, g, s, x, and y, four represent distinct sounds of their own, but can also represent consonant sounds already represented by other letters:
f: fun, of
g: go, giraffe
s: sin, miser
x: fox, xylophone
The letter y can stand for either a consonant or a vowel:
y: yellow, gym
As for the vowel letters a, e, i, o, and u, the sounds they represent number at least 12 (In American speech, the vowel sounds of father and on are the same):
a: at, ape, father
e: Ed, be
i: in, ice
o: on, no, to
u: up, uke, put
That takes care of the 26 letters of the English alphabet, but that’s not the end of the story.
Much of the confusion regarding English spelling comes from pretending that English is spelled with the 26 single letters of the alphabet. The truth is, we use letter combinations as “extra letters” to represent speech sounds that are not represented by any of the single letters. Here are 12 combinations that represent distinct speech sounds:
th: thin, this
Any way you cut it, English spelling is complicated, but knowing about the combinations that represent sounds not in the alphabet can clear up a lot of the confusion.
As for getting rid of any of the letters, the Defense of Z on April 1 shows how popular that idea would be!
NOTE: Alternate spellings exist for the sounds /ow/, /oi/, /aw/, /er/, and /sh/. Alternate spellings also exist for many of the sounds represented by the single letters. The subject of alternate spellings is best reserved for another post.
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