Q From Colin de’Ath: Why are the letters a and e joined together in Old English and what happened to the combination later?
A The first writing in the language that was to become English, in the fifth century AD, was brought over with them by the Jutes, Angles and Saxons from the continent of Europe. When they wrote, these Germanic peoples did so in runes, using an alphabet whose origin is in doubt but which scholars suggest was partly borrowed from Greek and Roman models, reshaping the letters so that they could be cut into hard materials like wood, bone or stone. The runic script was called futhorc (also written as futhark, futharc and futhork), from its first six letters (th, called thorn by early English speakers, was one letter).
Top: The first six letters of the runic alphabet; Bottom: The Old English
characters ash, thorn, eth,
wynn and yogh.
Later, Christian missionaries introduced the Latin alphabet to the English, who had never been conquered by the Romans and so had not been required to use it. The problem for the early English scribes was that English included sounds that didn’t fit the letters of the Latin alphabet. So they added five new ones at various times, to which they gave the names ash, thorn, wynn, eth and yogh. The one you’re referring to is ash, æ, which was created by combining a and e, technically a ligature or a digraph. Its name came from the related character in the runic alphabet; this meant the ash tree as well as the letter. The sound was that of the a in cat or apple, if you say them with a standard British English accent, though it varied in length.
When the Normans conquered England in 1066, they brought scribes with them who had been taught in a different tradition. (As just one example, they changed Old English cw in words like cwen to qu, in this case making the word we now spell queen.) Most of the Old English special forms vanished soon after, although ash survived until the thirteenth century.
It did continue in use elsewhere, notably in words in medieval Latin. These had been taken from Greek progenitors that included the letter combination alpha followed by iota (αι). The æ character came back into English in the sixteenth century when writers started to borrow these Latin words for concepts not in the language, as well as Greek ones containing the same letter combination. Some examples are æther, anæsthetic, archæology, anæmia, encyclopædia, gynæcology, hyæna, and mediæval, although there were at one time hundreds of others, most of them technical or scientific terms. The æ character was also used when words of Latin origin that ended in -a made their plurals by adding e, so generating forms such as algæ, antennæ, larvæ and nebulæ. Many of these now have their plurals in -s instead.
As such words became established, a few changed their spelling, replacing æ by e, so that æther changed to ether, phænomenon to phenomenon and musæum to museum. In British English, others kept the æ symbol and continued to be spelled with it into the twentieth century.
But ash is almost completely obsolete (the name itself is used only by linguists studying Old English; its modern official title is Latin ligature ae). It has been replaced in British English in all but the most scholarly or old-fashioned writing by ae (hence aegis, aeon and leukaemia, where older works had ægis, æon and leukæmia). Americans sidestepped the problem by extending the change to e to most such words, creating spellings such as archeology, eon and leukemia. Brits are increasingly doing the same, so — as a notable example — medieval is now standard, with mediaeval hardly seen, let alone the even older mediæval.
It’s been a roller-coaster ride for the character during the last millennium and a bit, but it’s now certain it won’t be around in English typography much longer.