English alphabet


Modern English is written with a Latin-script alphabet consisting of 26 letters, with each having both uppercase and lowercase forms. The word alphabet is a compound of alpha and beta, the names of the first two letters in the Greek alphabet. Old English was first written down using the Latin alphabet during the 7th century. During the centuries that followed, various letters entered or fell out of use. By the 16th century, the present set of 26 letters had largely stabilised:

English alphabet
An English-language pangram written with the FF Dax Regular typeface
Script type
Time period
c. 16th century – present
Related scripts
Parent systems
Child systems
ISO 15924
ISO 15924Latn (215), ​Latin
Unicode alias
U+0000–U+007E Basic Latin
 This article contains phonetic transcriptions in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA. For the distinction between [ ], / / and ⟨ ⟩, see IPA § Brackets and transcription delimiters.

There are 5 vowel letters and 19 consonant letters—as well as Y and W, which may function as either type.

Written English has a large number of digraphs, such as ⟨ch⟩, ⟨ea⟩, ⟨oo⟩, ⟨sh⟩, and ⟨th⟩. Diacritics are generally not used to write native English words, which is unusual among orthographies used to write the languages of Europe.

Letter names

English alphabet from 1740, with some unusual letter names. Note the use of long s.

The names of the letters are commonly spelled out in compound words and initialisms (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., en and em in printing, and wye in railroading). The spellings listed below are from the Oxford English Dictionary. Plurals of consonant names are formed by adding -s (e.g., bees, efs or effs, ems) or -es in the cases of aitches, esses, exes. Plurals of vowel names also take -es (i.e., aes, ees, ies, oes, ues), but these are rare. For a letter as a letter, the letter itself is most commonly used, generally in capitalised form, in which case the plural just takes -s or -'s (e.g. Cs or c's for cees).

Letter Name Name pronunciation Freq.
Latin Modern
Latin Old
A a ā /ˈ/, /ˈæ/[a] /aː/ /aː/ /aː/ 8.17%
B bee /ˈb/ /beː/ /beː/ /beː/ 1.49%
C cee /ˈs/ /keː/ /tʃeː/ > /tseː/
> /seː/
/seː/ 2.78%
D dee /ˈd/ /deː/ /deː/ /deː/ 4.25%
E e ē /ˈ/ /eː/ /eː/ /eː/ 12.70%
F ef, eff ef /ˈɛf/ /ɛf/ /ɛf/ /ɛf/ 2.23%
G gee /ˈ/ /ɡeː/ /dʒeː/ /dʒeː/ 2.02%
H aitch /ˈ/ /haː/ > /ˈaha/
> /ˈakːa/
/ˈaːtʃə/ /aːtʃ/ 6.09%
haitch[b] /ˈh/
I i ī /ˈ/ /iː/ /iː/ /iː/ 6.97%
J jay /ˈ/ [c] 0.15%
jy[d] /ˈ/
K kay /ˈk/ /kaː/ /kaː/ /kaː/ 0.77%
L el, ell[e] el /ˈɛl/ /ɛl/ /ɛl/ /ɛl/ 4.03%
M em em /ˈɛm/ /ɛm/ /ɛm/ /ɛm/ 2.41%
N en en /ˈɛn/ /ɛn/ /ɛn/ /ɛn/ 6.75%
O o ō /ˈ/ /oː/ /oː/ /oː/ 7.51%
P pee /ˈp/ /peː/ /peː/ /peː/ 1.93%
Q cue, kew,
kue, que
/ˈkj/ /kuː/ /kyː/ /kiw/ 0.10%
R ar er /ˈɑːr/ /ɛr/ /ɛr/ /ɛr/ > /ar/ 5.99%
or[f] /ˈɔːr/
S ess es /ˈɛs/ /ɛs/ /ɛs/ /ɛs/ 6.33%
T tee /ˈt/ /teː/ /teː/ /teː/ 9.06%
U u ū /ˈj/ /uː/ /yː/ /iw/ 2.76%
V vee /ˈv/ 0.98%
W double-u /ˈdʌbəl.j/[h] 2.36%
X ex ex /ˈɛks/ /ɛks/ /iks/ /ɛks/ 0.15%
ix /ɪks/
Y wy, wye /ˈw/ /hyː/ ui, gui ? /wiː/ 1.97%
ī graeca /iː ˈɡraɪka/ /iː ɡrɛːk/
Z zed[i] zēta /ˈzɛd/ /ˈzeːta/ /ˈzɛːdə/ /zɛd/ 0.07%
zee[j] /ˈz/



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 vocalised 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.



The ampersand (&) has sometimes appeared at the end of the English alphabet, as in Byrhtferð's list of letters in 1011.[2] & was regarded as the 27th letter of the English alphabet, as taught to children in the US and elsewhere. An example may be seen in M. B. Moore's 1863 book The Dixie Primer, for the Little Folks.[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, plus occasionally the Latin word et, as in the abbreviation &c (et cetera).

Archaic letters


Old and Middle English had a number of non-Latin letters that have since dropped out of use. Some of these either took the names of the equivalent runes, since there were no Latin names to adopt, or were runes themselves (thorn, wyn).

  • Æ æ Ash or æsc /ˈæʃ/, used for the vowel /æ/, which disappeared from the language and then reformed. Replaced by ae[k] and e now.
  • Ð ð Edh, or eth /ˈɛð/, used for the consonants /ð/ and /θ/ (which did not become phonemically distinct until after the letter had fallen out of use). Replaced by th now.
  • Þ þ Thorn or þorn /ˈθɔːrn/, used for the consonants /ð/ and /θ/ (which did not become phonemically distinct until after the letter had fallen out of use). Replaced by th now.
  • Œ œ Ethel, ēðel, œ̄þel, etc. /ˈɛðəl/, used for the vowel /œ/, which disappeared from the language quite early. Replaced by oe[l] and e now.
  • Ƿ ƿ Wyn, ƿen (Kentish) or wynn /ˈwɪn/, used for the consonant /w/. (The letter 'w' had not yet been invented.) Replaced by w now.
  • Ȝ ȝ Yogh, ȝogh or yoch /ˈjɒɡ/ or /ˈjɒx/, used for various sounds derived from /ɡ/, such as /j/ and /x/. Replaced by y, j[m], gh, and ch[n] now.
  • ſ long s, an earlier form of the lowercase "s" that continued to be used alongside the modern lowercase s into the 1800s. Replaced by lowercase s now.
  • r rotunda, an alternative form of the lowercase "r".



The most common diacritic marks seen in English publications are the acute (é), grave (è), circumflex (â, î, or ô), tilde (ñ), umlaut and Diaeresis (ü or ï—the same symbol is used for two different purposes), and cedilla (ç).[4] Diacritics used for tonal languages may be replaced with tonal numbers or omitted.



Diacritic marks mainly appear in loanwords such as naïve and façade. Informal English writing tends to omit diacritics because of their absence from the keyboard, while professional copywriters and typesetters tend to include them.

As such words become naturalised in English, there is a tendency to drop the diacritics, as has happened with many older borrowings from French, such as hôtel. Words that are still perceived as foreign tend to retain them; for example, the only spelling of soupçon found in English dictionaries (the OED and others) uses the diacritic. However, diacritics are likely to be retained even in naturalised words where they would otherwise be confused with a common native English word (for example, résumé rather than resume).[5] Rarely, they may even be added to a loanword for this reason (as in maté, from Spanish yerba mate but following the pattern of café, from French, to distinguish from mate).

Native English words


Occasionally, especially in older writing, diacritics are used to indicate the syllables of a word: cursed (verb) is pronounced with one syllable, while cursèd (adjective) is pronounced with two. For this, è is used widely in poetry, e.g., in Shakespeare's sonnets. J. R. R. Tolkien used ë, as in O wingëd crown.

Similarly, while in chicken coop the letters -oo- represent a single vowel sound (a digraph), they less often represent two which may be marked with a diaresis as in zoölogist[6] and coöperation. This use of the diaeresis is rare but found in some well-known publications, such as MIT Technology Review and The New Yorker. Some publications, particularly in UK usage, have replaced the diaeresis with a hyphen such as in co-operative.[citation needed]

In general, these devices are not used even where they would serve to alleviate some degree of confusion.

Punctuation marks within words




The apostrophe (ʼ) is not usually considered part of the English alphabet nor used as a diacritic, even in loanwords. But it is used for two important purposes in written English: to mark the "possessive"[o] and to mark contracted words. Current standards require its use for both purposes. Therefore, apostrophes are necessary to spell many words even in isolation, unlike most punctuation marks, which are concerned with indicating sentence structure and other relationships among multiple words.

  • It distinguishes (from the otherwise identical regular plural inflection -s) the English possessive morpheme "'s" (apostrophe alone after a regular plural affix, giving -s' as the standard mark for plural + possessive). Practice settled in the 18th century; before then, practices varied but typically all three endings were written -s (but without cumulation). This meant that only regular nouns bearing neither could be confidently identified, and plural and possessive could be potentially confused (e.g., "the Apostles words"; "those things over there are my husbands"[7])—which undermines the logic of "marked" forms.
  • Many common contractions have near-homographs from which they are distinguished in writing only by an apostrophe, for example it's (it is or it has) as opposed to its, the possessive form of "it", or she'd (she would or she had) as opposed to shed.

In a Chronicle of Higher Education blog, Geoffrey Pullum argued that apostrophe is the 27th letter of the alphabet, arguing that it does not function as a form of punctuation.[8]



Hyphens are often used in English compound words. Written compound words may be hyphenated, open or closed, so specifics are guided by stylistic policy. Some writers may use a slash in certain instances.



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.[9]



The letters A, E, I, O, and U are considered vowel letters, since (except when silent) they represent vowels, although I and U represent consonants in words such as "onion" and "quail" respectively.

The letter Y sometimes represents a consonant (as in "young") and sometimes a vowel (as in "myth"). Very rarely, W may represent a vowel (as in "cwm", a Welsh loanword).

The consonant sounds represented by the letters W and Y in English (/w/ and /j/ as in yes /jɛs/ and went /wɛnt/) are referred to as semi-vowels (or glides) by linguists, however this is a description that applies to the sounds represented by the letters and not to the letters themselves.

The remaining letters are considered consonant letters, since when not silent they generally represent consonants.



Old English


The English language itself was initially written in the Anglo-Saxon futhorc runic alphabet, in use from the 5th century. This alphabet was brought to what is now England, along with the proto-form of the language itself, by Anglo-Saxon settlers. Very few examples of this form of written Old English have survived, mostly as short inscriptions or fragments.

The Latin script, introduced by Christian missionaries, began to replace the Anglo-Saxon futhorc from about the 7th century, although the two continued in parallel for some time. As such, the Old English alphabet began to employ parts of the Roman alphabet in its construction.[10] Futhorc influenced the emerging English alphabet by providing it with the letters thorn (Þ þ) and wynn (Ƿ ƿ). The letter eth (Ð ð) was later devised as a modification of dee (D d), and finally yogh (Ȝ ȝ) was created by Norman scribes from the insular g in Old English and Irish, and used alongside their Carolingian g.

The a-e ligature ash (Æ æ) was adopted as a letter in its own right, named after a futhorc rune æsc. In very early Old English the o-e ligature ethel (Œ œ) also appeared as a distinct letter, likewise named after a rune, œðel.[citation needed] Additionally, the v–v or u-u ligature double-u (W w) was in use.

In the year 1011, a monk named Byrhtferð recorded the traditional order of the Old English alphabet.[2] He listed the 24 letters of the Latin alphabet first, including the ampersand, then 5 additional English letters, starting with the Tironian note ond (⁊), an insular symbol for and:

A B C D E F G H I K L M N O P Q R S T V X Y Z & ⁊ Ƿ Þ Ð Æ

Modern English


In the orthography of Modern English, the letters thorn (þ), eth (ð), wynn (ƿ), yogh (ȝ), ash (æ), and ethel (œ) are obsolete. Latin borrowings reintroduced homographs of æ and œ into Middle English and Early Modern English, though they are largely obsolete (see "Ligatures in recent usage" below), and where they are used they are not considered to be separate letters (e.g., for collation purposes), but rather ligatures. Thorn and eth were both replaced by th, though thorn continued in existence for some time, its lowercase form gradually becoming graphically indistinguishable from the minuscule y in most handwriting. Y for th can still be seen in pseudo-archaisms such as "Ye Olde Booke Shoppe". The letters þ and ð are still used in present-day Icelandic (where they now represent two separate sounds, /θ/ and /ð/ having become phonemically-distinct – as indeed also happened in Modern English), while ð is still used in present-day Faroese (although only as a silent letter). Wynn disappeared from English around the 14th century when it was supplanted by uu, which ultimately developed into the modern w. Yogh disappeared around the 15th century and was typically replaced by gh.

The letters u and j, as distinct from v and i, were introduced in the 16th century, and w assumed the status of an independent letter. The variant lowercase form long s (ſ) lasted into early modern English, and was used in non-final position up to the early 19th century. Today, the English alphabet is considered to consist of the following 26 letters:

Written English has a number of digraphs,[11] but they are not considered separate letters of the alphabet:

  • ch (usually makes tsh sound)
  • ci (makes s sound)
  • ck (makes k sound)
  • gh (makes f or g sound (also silent))
  • ng (makes a voiced velar nasal)
  • ph (makes f sound)
  • qu (makes kw sound)
  • rh (makes r sound)
  • sc (makes s sound (also a blend)[clarification needed])
  • sh (makes ch sound without t)
  • th (makes theta or eth sound)
  • ti (makes sh sound)
  • wh (makes w sound)
  • wr (makes r sound)
  • zh (makes j sound without d)

Ligatures in recent usage

The ligatures of Adobe Caslon Pro

Outside of professional papers on specific subjects that traditionally use ligatures in loanwords, ligatures are seldom used in modern English. The ligatures æ and œ were until the 19th century (slightly later in American English)[citation needed] used in formal writing for certain words of Greek or Latin origin, such as encyclopædia and cœlom, although such ligatures were not used in either classical Latin or ancient Greek. These are now usually rendered as "ae" and "oe" in all types of writing,[citation needed] although in American English, a lone e has mostly supplanted both (for example, encyclopedia for encyclopaedia, and maneuver for manoeuvre).

Some typefaces used to typeset English texts contain commonly used ligatures, such as for ⟨tt⟩, ⟨fi⟩, ⟨fl⟩, ⟨ffi⟩, and ⟨ffl⟩. These are not independent letters – although in traditional typesetting, each of these ligatures would have its own sort (type element) for practical reasons – but simply type design choices created to optimize the legibility of the text.

Proposed reforms


There have been a number of proposals to extend or replace the basic English alphabet. These include proposals for the addition of letters to the English alphabet, such as eng or engma (Ŋ ŋ), used to replace the digraph "ng" and represent the voiced velar nasal sound with a single letter. Benjamin Franklin's phonetic alphabet, based on the Latin alphabet, introduced a number of new letters as part of a wider proposal to reform English orthography. Other proposals have gone further, proposing entirely new scripts for written English to replace the Latin alphabet such as the Deseret alphabet and the Shavian alphabet.

See also


Notes and references



  1. ^ often in Hiberno-English, due to the letter's pronunciation in the Irish language
  2. ^ The usual form in Hiberno-English and Australian English
  3. ^ The letter J did not occur in Old French or Middle English. The Modern French name is ji /ʒi/, corresponding to Modern English jy (rhyming with i), which in most areas was later replaced with jay (rhyming with kay).
  4. ^ in Scottish English
  5. ^ In the US, an L-shaped object may be spelled ell.
  6. ^ in Hiberno-English
  7. ^ in compounds such as es-hook
  8. ^ Especially in American English, the /l/ is often not pronounced in informal speech. (Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed). Common colloquial pronunciations are /ˈdʌbəj/, /ˈdʌbəjə/, and /ˈdʌbjə/ (as in the nickname "Dubya") or just /ˈdʌb/, especially in terms like www.
  9. ^ in British English, Hiberno-English and Commonwealth English
  10. ^ in American English, Newfoundland English and Philippine English
  11. ^ in British English
  12. ^ in British English
  13. ^ in words like hallelujah
  14. ^ in words like loch in Scottish English
  15. ^ Linguistic analyses vary on how best to characterise the English possessive morpheme -'s: a noun case inflectional suffix distinct to possession, a genitive case inflectional suffix equivalent to prepositional periphrastic of X (or rarely for X), an edge inflection that uniquely attaches to a noun phrase's final (rather than head) word, or an enclitic postposition.


  1. ^ The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edition.
  2. ^ a b Michael Everson, Evertype, Baldur Sigurðsson, Íslensk Málstöð, On the Status of the Latin Letter Þorn and of its Sorting Order
  3. ^ "The Dixie Primer, for the Little Folks". Branson, Farrar & Co., Raleigh NC.
  4. ^ Strizver, Ilene, "Accents & Accented Characters", Fontology, Monotype Imaging, retrieved 2019-06-17
  5. ^ MHRA Style Guide: A Handbook for Authors and Editors (pdf) (3rd ed.), London: Modern Humanities Research Association, 2013, Section 2.2, ISBN 978-1-78188-009-8, retrieved 2019-06-17.
  6. ^ Zoölogist, Minnesota Office of the State (1892). Report of the State Zoölogist.
  7. ^ Fynes-Clinton, Jane (2007-04-26). "Little Things that Matter". The Courier-Mail. Archived from the original on 2012-09-04. Retrieved 2013-04-07.
  8. ^ Pullum, Geoffrey K. (March 22, 2013). "Being an apostrophe". Lingua Franca. Chronicle of Higher Education. Archived from the original on Oct 13, 2023.
  9. ^ Beker, Henry; Piper, Fred (1982). Cipher Systems: The Protection of Communications. Wiley-Interscience. p. 397. Table also available from Lewand, Robert (2000). Cryptological Mathematics. Mathematical Association of America. p. 36. ISBN 978-0883857199. and "English letter frequencies". Archived from the original on 2008-07-08. Retrieved 2008-06-25.
  10. ^ Shaw, Phillip (May 2013). "Adapting the Roman alphabet for Writing Old English: Evidence from Coin Epigraphy and Single-Sheet Characters". Early Medieval Europe. 21 (2). Wiley Blackwell: 115–139. doi:10.1111/emed.12012. S2CID 163075636 – via Ebscohost.
  11. ^ "Digraphs (Phonics on the Web)". phonicsontheweb.com. Archived from the original on 2016-04-13. Retrieved 2016-04-07.

Further reading

  • Michael Rosen (2015). Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story. Counterpoint. ISBN 978-1619027022.
  • Upward, Christopher; Davidson, George (2011), The History of English Spelling, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, ISBN 978-1-4051-9024-4, LCCN 2011008794.