It has 26 letters:
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
Those are called upper-case letters. In addition there is a lower-case letter for each of these:
a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z
Upper-case letters are sometimes called capital letters because they most often appear at the head of words, sentences and pages. “Capital” comes from caput, the Latin word for head.
The lower-case letters started out as a different way to write upper-case letters. They were invented in the 300s to save paper and make it easier to tell letters apart. They are also easier to write: most can be written without taking your pen off the paper. They were more suited to parchment, a new sort of paper that was smoother than the older papyrus.
In the 600s, the English, like so many others, were taught to write by Christian missionaries. Since the missionaries wrote in Latin, they taught the English to write their language in Latin letters.
It was a bad fit: there were only 23 Latin letters in those days and yet there are over 40 English sounds! For most of its history, English was not regarded as a “real” language like Latin was. Few questioned the use of Latin letters to write English.
About 20 new letters were needed, but only a few new letters were added. There used to be the letter Ȝ for gh and the letters Þ and Ð for th. They disappeared after the Norman French took over England in 1066 and wrote English in the French fashion. Later J, V and W were added. J and V were added for Latin and came into English afterwards.
The result was the disaster that is English spelling:
- English sometimes uses the same letter for different sounds. For example, the a in fat and in father are two different sounds. The s in snake, pleasure, and rose represent three different sounds!
- English sometimes uses two letters put together to represent one sound. For example, the ch in cheese, the sh in shoe or the th in father (which is different than the th in thin!)
- In English some letters are silent and yet affect the sound of other letters. For example, the e in fate, which has no sound in itself but makes the a sound different than it does in fat.
But it gets worse: English is written the way it was pronounced by government workers in London in the early 1400s! They created a Standard English that was later shaped and sealed by the printing press in the late 1400s and early 1500s.
– Abagond, 2006, 2015.