Yellacat Ranch Under a Western Sky

Lost Alphabet Letters


In the modern Western world we use the Roman alphabet with 26 letters. Usually. The Swedes actually have 29 letters. What’s surprising to some folks is that we might have had more letters ourselves. Who thinks about what might have been? Except when you see an extract from an olde manuscript and spot a letter or two you’ve seen before but don’t know to pronounce.

Here’s a list of the lost letters. I particularly grieve losing eth and thorn

You know the alphabet. It’s one of the first things you’re taught in school. But did you know that they’re not teaching you all of the alphabet? There are quite a few letters we tossed aside as our language grew, and you probably never even knew they existed.

Funny side story here. My grandfather, just to be a bit ornery sometimes, kept up the idea that Swanstrom is spelled Swanström. (“Fine. As Americans we’ll change the v to a w but we’re keeping the ö.“) Didn’t bother him a bit when people laughed uncertainly but didn’t change it. After all, how could anyone change it when there is a key for it on American typewriters? The point, I think, was not to insist on it but to say it just often enough so that everyone knows you haven’t abandoned your rights.

When I got to college, I took Swedish 101. One of the first things we learned was that the Swedish alphabet has three extra letters — å, ä, and ö. They are really, truly separate letters, not just ordinary letters tarted up the way Germans do. That ö is an /øː/ not an “o with two dots” or an “o umlaut“.

I promptly swapped out the o in Swanstrom for an ö, joining my mother and grandfather in the family tradition of fancy spelling.

Now here’s the point of this little story. I have many friends who do numerology. I dabble in it myself. Modern numerology–and it is very modern, no earlier than the 1920s, I don’t think–operates by reducing each letter of the alphabet to a numeric value, then adds the numeric value of all the letters in a word or name to come up with a number. And that number has a meaning.

As a quick example, let’s do cat. C (3rd letter)=3, A (1st letter)=1, T (20th letter, 2+0)=2. So cat would be 3+1+20=24, and 2+4=6. Then, the number 6 has a particular meaning in numerology. “The number 6 is the number of domestic happiness, harmony and stability“. That’s one interpretation, anyway.

So, if the Swedes have extra letters then ö is the 29th letter, different from o the 15th letter. Swanstrom spelled Swanström will end up with a different number. My numerology chums are dubious. They’re uncomfortable. They won’t come out and say it, but they seem to be operating in a world where the American way is the right way and everyone else is wrong or misguided. I’m not getting a coherent analysis from any of them. The best argument I’ve heard so far is that I’m an American, so I can’t have Swedish letters in my name. “Those two dots over the o are just decorative.

But, luck of the draw. The ö is the 29th letter of the Swedish alphabet, so 2+9=11. In the reductionist methodology of numerology, this means is that changing my o to an ö, doesn’t change the final outcome.

Why and how that works is one of the mysteries of math. I didn’t get far enough to understand it, but it does give me a reason to think about those other letters and how they might change the numerology of a name, and those 12 letters we’ve lost and what impact they might have had on modern numerology. If only we knew the order in which they would have appeared in our alphabet.

Yellacat Ranch Under a Western Sky
Justin Swanstrom

Justin Swanstrom

Made in America. Retired attorney. Bookseller at Shining Lotus. No Nazis in Valhalla. He/him.

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