2nd Invasion brings New Letters


Picture of Queen Boadicea and her Celts in their last stand against the Roman Invasion. Introduction from Tangiora: Last time we heard from the Spelling Queen how the Romans took their alphabet to Britain. Who were the next to invade and what did they contribute?

Paquita – The Anglo-Saxons invaded next. They added some new letters to the alphabet to spell their sounds, new sounds that Romans and Celts did not use. For example, the sharp vowel sound [a] in AXE, SLASH, BASH and ANGLE and SAXON. They spread their language across the land and the old Celtic languages only survived in faraway places like Wales and Scotland. They called their part of Britain England and they spoke English, which included quite a few Celtic words too, much the same as Australians use many Aboriginal words, like the word BUDGERIGAR.

Tangiora – That would be an interesting topic, Aboriginal contributions to English. Maybe for later. For now, can you explain why it’s called English?

Paquita – I have read that the Angles who invaded did the writing. They came from an angle of land which jutted out into the sea like an ankle or a hook. No doubt they were anglers and hooked a lot of fish. The plural of man is men and the plural of Angle is Engle. They were the writers and so they called it Engle-land and the language Engl-ish. Later it changed from ‘English’ to ‘Inglish’, but the spelling didn’t change.

Tangiora – Tell us about the new letters.

Paquita – The Roman letters we call A E I O U spelt short [u] [e] [i] [o] [uu]. The invaders added their letter Ash to the Roman alphabet to spell the [a] sound we hear in CAT. This made reading easy, for the next 600 years. Then letter Ash was removed from the alphabet and letter A has had to spell both sounds ever since, [a] and [u]. In AND, A spells [a] but in AGO, A spells [u]. Also A has to spell two long sounds, [ay] and [ar], [ay] in LATER and [ar] in FATHER. That’s why some read ‘banana’ and I read ‘barnarnar’, I read ‘tomato’ and others read ‘tomayto’!!

Tangiora – You say ‘potarto’ and I say ‘potayto’ — Gershwin’s song. What other letters are we missing?

Paquita – They are all in the chapter called Lost Letters in my book on spelling. They were added by the Anglo-Saxons and then removed by later invaders. My favourite is the letter called Thorn. It spelt the sound we hear at the beginning of THE and words like THIS, THAT and THEM. It looked like a stick with a thorn out the side and it was the last Anglo-Saxon letter to be removed from the alphabet but remained on old signs. It actually looks a lot like the letter Y, a bent stick with a thorn out the side. Have you seen YE OLDE SHOPPE signs? Well they actually say ‘The Old Shop’ not Ye Old Shop. The Y is not a Y. It is the old Anglo-Saxon letter called Thorn.

English was very easy to read when there was a single letter for each sound. But we have lost a lot of letters and the remaining letters have to do a range of jobs, spelling their own sounds and other sounds too. That is why English takes two and a half more years to learn to read and write than Italian and most other languages.

So it’s not our fault that reading can be difficult, but at the same time it can be a lot of fun learning how the letters help each other out. H is one of those letters, Secret Agent Aitch, also known as Helpful Handy Haitch, which we’ll hear more of soon.

Tangiora – why are you so interested in English and literature?

Paquita – I am interested in spelling. I had to teach my own kids to read and the second one, a boy, asked questions – asked why HIS has no Zed which we talked about last time on air. I could not explain it and teachers could not and they still can’t. And so I spent many years finding out how to explain English spelling. It is not taught in teacher training colleges and I think if children ask questions they should get good answers.

Tangiora – next time I’ll be asking Paquita about Aboriginal words which have entered into English.

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