Ligatures (in English) Unlinked

Two horses pulliing apart the Æsc linguistic ligature, in the style of the Bayeux Tapestry

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:

  • Typographical
  • Pronunciation
  • 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

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”.

Ampersand (&)

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 (ß)

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,

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)
Æ Æsc U+00C6 U+00E6
Œ Œthel U+0152 U+0153
ß Eszett U+0392 U+03B2
tironian_et Tironian Et U+204A*

* 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:


The Spelling of English: Carved in Stone?

Why does the spelling of English seem so illogical? Surely, every one of us who has learned to write the language must have asked ourselves (or someone else) that question at some point. There are many other languages where the very idea of writing words in a way that doesn’t represent their sounds would seem utterly pointless, so why is this considered not merely acceptable, but correct, in English?

Part of the answer is that early writers took to writing the language using an alphabet that didn’t contain symbols for several sounds that already existed in spoken English. The details of this process are complex, and are excellently covered in The History of English Spelling (Christopher Upward).

As a teenager, I stumbled across an astonishing example of early English writing that not only illustrates a now-extinct solution to the problem of English spelling, but also documents some momentous times in England’s history.

The Hidden Sundial
In a secluded rural valley near the town where I was born, in Northern England, there’s a plain and unassuming little church, called St. Gregory’s Minster. The image below, from my most recent visit, shows the building from the South.

View of St. Gregory's Minster, Ryedale
St. Gregory’s Minster, Ryedale, from the South

By an accident of history, an inscription that had been carved into the church’s wall when it was built has been preserved to this day. Based on its content, it’s possible to date the inscription quite accurately.

The inscription is on a lintel above the doorway in the church’s south wall, and it originally formed the surrounding of a sundial above the door. A porch was built onto the doorway at some later date, and plaster was applied to the walls inside the porch. The inscription was thus covered up until 1771, when it was rediscovered, in remarkably good condition. The image below, of the complete inscription, is enhanced to make the characters easier to read.

St. Gregory's Minster, Inscription on Sundial
The Complete Inscription

Deciphering the Message
The text is, to our eyes, very difficult to decipher, partly because there are no spaces between words. With spaces restored, and with the character forms converted to more modern equivalents, the main text actually reads like this.

Inscription Main Text in Modern Characters
The Main Text, using Modern Characters

This is indeed a form of English, but there was no “Standard English” at the time of its writing. Since the departure of the Romans, what is now England had been divided into separate kingdoms, each of which spoke their own dialect. At that time, the various kingdoms had only recently become federated, under the leadership of Alfred the Great. The inscription is written in the Northumbrian dialect of Old English, and uses abbreviations and letters that are absent from the modern language. Translated into modern English, the main text says;

Orm Gamalson bought St. Gregory’s Minster when it was all broken and fallen down, and he had it made anew to Christ and St. Gregory, in the days of King Edward and in the days of Earl Tostig

The names of King Edward, and Earl Tostig provide the clues as to the date of the inscription. Earl Tostig ruled Northumbria between 1055 and 1065, and King Edward (Edward the Confessor) ruled England as a whole from 1042 to 1066. Hence the inscription can be dated to between 1055-65.

Spelling of English: Northumbrian Spelling Conventions
Most people are aware that the character set that we now use to write English was derived from the Roman alphabet, but may not realize that our language was not originally written in that alphabet.

The earliest English language was written using an alphabet called “runes”. The Roman alphabet was introduced into Britain between about 40 and 400 CE, during the Roman occupation of the territory. The Romans left behind Christian churches with a tradition of speaking Latin, and writing using the Roman alphabet. Around 700 CE, church historians opted to start writing the English language using Roman letters, instead of runes.

When English was written using runes, there was one letter for each sound, and the spelling of English was always phonetic and logical. Unfortunately, however, not all the sounds of the English language could be represented by the Roman letters. For example, the Roman alphabet offered no way to represent the English “th” sound, or the English “w” sound.

Two different solutions to these problems arose. One solution, which is now extinct, probably originated at Lindisfarne, in Northumbria. The inscription at St. Gregory’s Minster is written using this Northumbrian method, which involved the retention of the runic symbols for the English sounds that the Roman alphabet could not represent. For example, the rune thorn, which looks like a “p” with a small projection, was used for the “th” sound, and the rune wynn (which, unfortunately, also looks like a “p”) was used for the “w” sound. It isn’t difficult to guess why this system might have fallen from favor — the shapes of thorn, wynn and ‘p’ are all confusingly similar to each other. As a partial solution to this problem, the letter thorn was frequently replaced by a symbol consisting of a ‘d’ with a cross through it, called edh (as is still used in modern Icelandic).

Spelling of English: Wessex Spelling Conventions
The alternate method of representing these sounds came from Wessex, in what’s now Southern England. The Wessex method substituted two-letter combinations, such as “t.h.” for the “th” sound, and “u.u.” for the “w” sound. As we all know, it was the Wessex method that eventually prevailed.

Soon after the inscription was written, in 1066, the king mentioned in the inscription, Edward the Confessor, died, and battles erupted between the claimants to the English throne. Seeking revenge, Tostig teamed up with the Norwegian king, Harald Hardrada, and together they invaded England from the North. Their invasion was repulsed and defeated by a resident claimant, Harold Godwinson (who happened to be Tostig’s brother), but a third claimant, William of Normandy, took advantage of Harold’s absence in the North, by mounting his own invasion from France. As is now well-known, William defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings, and the Norman victory simply terminated the line of the Old English monarchy.

Spelling of English: English Goes Underground
In order to consolidate his power, William dispossessed all the English earls, and changed the official language of his kingdom to an old version of French. As a result, the English language went “underground” for a couple of centuries. For several hundred years, English existed as an unofficial vernacular language, which meant that many of its speakers were illiterate. This created a situation where sound changes in the spoken tongue were not reflected in the written language, which contributed further to the dephoneticization of English spelling that had commenced with the changeover from the runic alphabet.

When it finally re-emerged, English had been forever changed by its contact with French, having metamorphosed into a language much more recognizable to us.