Back in my schooldays, when studying English Language and English Literature, I sometimes encountered strange characters that looked like combinations of letters. For example, we were encouraged to consult encyclopædias, and I noticed that that word included a mysterious “æ” character. Inexplicably, throughout all that study, none of my teachers ever explained to us the purpose and usage of these characters, which I later learned were called linguistic ligatures.
In this article, I’ll explain what ligature characters are, and how they are or were used in the English language.
The use of some types of ligature character is dying out in English. As I’ll explain, this change seems to have been caused partly by limitations of writing technology.
What is a Ligature?
The word ligature has several meanings, but a linguistic ligature (which is what I’ll be discussing here) is a conjoining of two (or more) letters in writing, which may be done for various reasons.
Linguistic Ligatures serve a variety of purposes:
- Shorthand Symbol
This article discusses ligatures as used in the English language, but mentions other languages where these have in some way influenced the English usage.
Maybe my English teachers thought that ignoring ligature characters was reasonable, because they regarded ligatures as a stylistic device only. After all, our English language studies also didn’t discuss other stylistic issues, such as font choice. It’s also true that we were never taught to use ligatures when writing.
In reality, however, the use of ligatures is more than simply a matter of typographic style. In the past, and even sometimes today, in English and in other languages, ligatures are or have been used as letters in their own right. There has been much evolution over time, as some symbols that were originally ligatures have been transformed into letters.
Typographic ligatures are used in typesetting, to optimize the spacing and interaction between letters. This kind of ligature has no linguistic significance; it has no effect on pronunciation or meaning.
Perhaps one of the best-known examples of this kind of ligature is “ﬁ”, which is used to close the space between “fi” when printed, in such a way that the hook of the “f” doesn’t collide with the dot of the “i”.
Linguistic Ligature Letters
Conversely, linguistic ligatures do affect the pronunciation and meaning of words. The following are some examples of existing or former linguistic ligature characters that you may encounter in English.
There is one letter in English that was originally not a letter but a ligature: w. The fact that it was originally two letters is indicated by its name: “double u”. As I mentioned in a previous post, the sound represented by “w” did not exist in Latin, which presented a problem when scribes writing English wanted to switch from using runic letters to the Latin alphabet. Various workarounds were invented, such as retaining the runic character wynn to represent “w” in English, but, eventually, the “Wessex convention” of representing “w” with two “v” characters became the standard.
The Æsc and the Œthel
Æsc. The ligature æ has had various uses over the centuries.
In Latin, ae was a letter combination that was pronounced as a diphthong “ai”, similar to the “long I” in the modern English word “fine”. Later, the pronunciation changed to a simple vowel “e” as in “men”, so it became the practice to write the letter combination as a ligature.
In the Old English language, æ was a separate letter called æsc (pronounced “ash”, and meaning ash, as in the type of tree). In Old English, the letters “æ” and “a” had consistent and different pronunciations. The letter “æ” was always pronounced as the “a” in the modern word “man”, whereas the letter “a” was always pronounced as the vowel sound in the modern word “palm”.
The usual pronunciation of this character in modern English is “ee”.
Œthel. This ligature character is generally used in English for words imported from Greek, for example, “Œdipus”. Its usual pronunciation in modern English is “ee”.
This character also corresponds to a runic character called ēðel, meaning “estate”. In Latin, it was used to represent the Greek diphthong “oi”, and hence pronounced as in “coil”.
In American English, this ligature has been replaced with “e” in most cases. However, there are some exceptions, such as “phoenix”.
This ligature also appears in many modern French words. For example, “œil” for “eye” and “œuf” for “egg”.
The Ampersand character & is actually also a contorted ligature of the letters “et”, which formed the Latin word for “and” (and is still the French word for “and”).
In a previous post I described several obsolete characters that appear in a surviving Old English inscription above the doorway of St. Gregory’s Minster in Yorkshire, England. One character that appears in that inscription, but which I didn’t discuss in that post, is the Tironian Et, which was used as shorthand for the word “and” in the days before the use of the ampersand became common.
The Tironian Et is not represented in most Unicode typefaces, so here it is in graphic form:
The Tironian Et is not a ligature, but I’m mentioning it here because of its relation to the ampersand.
Eszett is not a modern English character, but forms of it sometimes appear in older English texts, where it represents a double s (“ss”), written as a “long s” and a standard s.
The eszett is still used in standard German, where it represents a double s. However, according to the spelling rules of German, not all double-s combinations can be replaced with eszett. For the details, see, for example, http://german.about.com/od/vocabulary/fl/Spelling-Reform-Double-s-Words-German-Language-Eszett.htm
Note that, despite the resemblance, the eszett character is not the same character as the Greek lower-case beta: β (and obviously does not have the same pronunciation). I mention this because, even in printed documents, I sometimes see cases where one character has mistakenly been used in place of the other.
Modern Evolution of Linguistic Ligatures
Several technological advances have led to a decline in the use of ligatures during the past century:
- Typewriters did not support ligatures, which led to their replacement with the corresponding letter pairs.
- ASCII character encoding did not include symbols for ligatures.
In the English language, the use of ligatures has tended to die out further during the past twenty years, but the convention for the replacement of the ligatures varies across the English-speaking world.
- In British/International English, the ligatures have usually been replaced by the two-letter combinations that formed the ligature, e g., æ -> ae. For example, anæsthesia has become anaesthesia.
- In American English, only the second letter is usually retained, e.g., æ -> e. For example, the word æsthetic has come to be spelled aesthetic in British English, but (sometimes) esthetic in American English (which could make it tricky to look up in a dictionary). Similarly, anæsthesia has become anesthesia.
Unicode character encoding does support ligatures (for fonts that provide the appropriate glyphs), but these characters usually cannot be entered via the keyboard, so most writers don’t use ligature characters, because of the inconvenience involved.
Linguistic Ligatures & Unicode
Many Unicode typefaces provide glyphs for ligatures, so you can replace letter combinations with ligatures. This is true for both linguistic and typographical ligatures. Some applications, such as Word, can make these replacements automatically.
For the linguistic ligatures and ligature-derived characters discussed here, but which are not available on standard keyboards, the following are the Unicode code points.
|Character||Name||Code Point (Upper Case)||Code Point (Lower Case)|
* Not supported in common Unicode typefaces, but available in Segoe UI Symbol, which is pre-installed in Windows.
Remember that, even if you’re using a typeface that provides glyphs for these Unicode characters, the equivalent two-letter combinations will not automatically be replaced with the ligature character as you type, unless your application (e.g., Word) is set up to do that.
Summary: Forget about Linguistic Ligatures!
Based on the considerations above, present-day writers of the English language will probably never need to use linguistic ligatures. In general, if you encounter “æ” you can treat it as “ae”, and if you encounter “œ”, you can treat it as “oe”.
Nonetheless, you will sometimes encounter these characters in older or more formal publications, so it’s helpful to know what they are, and how to pronounce them.
It’s also helpful to understand the way that these characters have been replaced over time, so you can see why, for example, the word “aesthetic” may sometimes be spelled “esthetic”.
References & Acknowledgments
The typeface used in the heading illustration for this article is “King Harold”, which is available for free download from: