The Forgotten Yat (And Other Extinct Letters)

Ever wonder what old alphabets used to look like? Hint: many of them contain letters we no longer use today.
November 8, 2018
The Forgotten Yat (And Other Extinct Letters)

Besides death and taxes, the one thing that’s a definite given is that language will never stop evolving. Old words fall out of favor as new ones are added to the dictionary, and old alphabets give way to their more streamlined modern counterparts.

The earliest forms of written language involved the mysterious inscriptions of cuneiform, hieroglyphics and ancient runes — alphabets that look nothing like the ones we’re familiar with today.

But somewhere in between prehistoric clay tablets and emojis, we had old alphabets that kind of resembled the ones we use now, except with a few more letters that eventually died out and went extinct. Here are the stories of five ghosts of letters past.

Yat: Ѣ

The yat was once the 32nd letter of the Early Cyrillic alphabet (the predecessor of Russian, Bulgarian, Belarusian and a number of other Slavic alphabets). The sound it made was kind of similar to the letter я (ya) or e (ye). In fact, it was so similar to the Russian e that it eventually became redundant, and so it was retired during the Russian language reforms of the Bolsheviks in the early 20th century. However, some Russian and Bulgarian dialects have managed to retain a slightly different pronunciation for words that originally contained the yat. It’s no longer orthographically used in any of the Slavic languages, but after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, it began to occasionally appear again in advertisements or pop culture attempting to evoke nostalgic memories.

Thorn: þ

Old English contained a letter called thorn, which came from the runic alphabet Futhark. Thorn was pronounced “th” (as in “thorn” and “think”, not “there” or “the”). It was actually once used to spell “the,” which ended up looking a lot like the “ye” in “ye olde barbershop.” So no, it wasn’t literally pronounced “ye.” It’s just that the old-timey Gothic script made thorn and “y” look practically the same, so we eventually replaced the thorn with “th.”

Ch and Ll

For those of you who grew up speaking Spanish or took it in school, these are both letters you probably grew up with and didn’t realize were now extinct. Well, we’re here to update you, because the Royal Spanish Academy officially decreed that the letters “ch” and “ll” were no longer officially part of the Spanish alphabet in 2010. This didn’t come without its controversy, of course.

Digamma: Ϝ

Though you won’t see this letter hanging around in modern written Greek, some dialects (like Doric and Arcadian) used the digamma, which made a “waw” or “wau” sound. In the 1700s, a scholar named Richard Bentley discovered that there was a sound present in some of Homer’s Greek words that wasn’t represented by any letter of the standard written version (but rather, in transcriptions of some Greek dialects). That sound was the digamma.

Ethel: Œ

Like thorn, ethel came from a Futhark rune (in this case, Odal). Though it originally sounded like the “oi” in “coil,” ethel was generally used in Latin loan words with an “ee” sound, like subpœna, diarrhœa and fœtus. We’ve replaced it with a plain old “e,” which is decidedly less badass, but probably more elegant.

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Steph Koyfman
Steph is a writer, lindy hopper, and astrologer. She’s also a language enthusiast who grew up bilingual and had an early love affair with books. She has mostly proved herself as a New Yorker, and she can introduce herself in Swedish thanks to Babbel. She also speaks Russian and Spanish, but she’s a little rusty on those fronts.
Steph is a writer, lindy hopper, and astrologer. She’s also a language enthusiast who grew up bilingual and had an early love affair with books. She has mostly proved herself as a New Yorker, and she can introduce herself in Swedish thanks to Babbel. She also speaks Russian and Spanish, but she’s a little rusty on those fronts.

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