It is common to see ligatures such as Æ or Œ in reference to classical works such as Œdipus or Æsop but these do not seem to have names. Strangely enough in the Old English alphabet there were similar letters such as æsc or ash, and œthel or ethel. Is there a connection between the classical ligatures and the Old English ones? If so, why do we use Old English names and not Latin ones? And if not how rare is such a coincidence? Bonus question: It seems from the comments and answers so far that the only times we use ligatures are in reference to classical works but the only names we have for ligatures are Old English or Runic names. Why might this be?

  • 1
    Hello, Jon. You say 'It is common to see ligatures such as Æ or Œ in reference to classical works'; you need to give examples. And have you checked the Wikipedia articles on the graphemes Æ and Œ? Aug 25, 2015 at 21:31
  • Thank you for asking for examples. I have looked at the Wikipedia articles and they are the source of my question.
    – SophArch
    Aug 25, 2015 at 21:41
  • 2
    I'm ready to be disproven, but I doubt that the Romans had names for their ligatures. If English has a name for our fi ligature, ubiquitous in print yet seldom noticed, I don't know it either.
    – Anonym
    Aug 25, 2015 at 22:25
  • 2
    @Anonym: I don't believe the Romans used ligatures (at least not in printing/block letters; I know very little about Roman cursive). From what I remember, ligatures developed in the mediæval period. The Romans just used digraphs, and I don't think they had a special names for either the "ae" and "oe" digraphs or the "au" digraph.
    – herisson
    Aug 25, 2015 at 23:58
  • 4
    I'd say it's because ligatures in general are not considered letters of the alphabet. Æ and œ were considered letters of the alphabet in the variants of OE that used them, whereas in Latin, they were only ever graphic variants of the (original) diphthongs ae and oe. Kind of like how in French, é and ç aren't considered letters of the alphabet, but in Polish ń and ż are. Aug 26, 2015 at 6:26

1 Answer 1


Not much to go on but here are a couple of clues:

The Latin dictionary (Smith) gives the earliest date for Diphthonga as 450ish. Marc. Carp.; Prisca. Two Roman Grammarians. And Ligature even later.

None of the early uncial manuscripts that I have so far looked at show ligatures, apart from the Divine monograms. The same applies to a web-site for inscriptions. There are contractions (sigla) in miniscule. The only other names for particular ligatures are also derived from Runic, the Irish ogham. Once again the names were needed when runic was transcribed into Latin.

EA : ébad
OI : óir
UI : uillenn
P, later IO : pín (later iphín)
X or Ch (as in loch), later AE : emancholl

enter image description here

source Wikipedia (Ogham Runes) (edit by @sumelic XAPIN.)

This doesn't explain why ή survived in French.

Just to tidy up dates C680. Here's a detail from the Cuthbert/ Stoneyhurst Gospel still showing no ligature for AE; and 3 Divine monograms. do, ds, ihs. Picture Copyright British Library, permitted study.

Courtesy of British Library; Cuthbert Gospel

  • 1
    What are "Divine monograms?"
    – SophArch
    Aug 26, 2015 at 4:36
  • Ds Dm with a bar or tilde over for Dominus/ Deus Deum. XP for Christos, or Christus. These are the two on a page in Amiatinus.
    – Hugh
    Aug 26, 2015 at 4:39
  • 1
    @Hugh thank you. I think the key in your answer was that the runes and their sounds were transliterated into Latin. That also makes sense for Πwhich I discovered is transliterated from the Greek ligature OI.
    – SophArch
    Aug 26, 2015 at 4:56
  • @Jon, It all seems to happen just as Irish scholarship is salvaging Roman learning from the barbarian invasions. Circumstantial.
    – Hugh
    Aug 26, 2015 at 5:01
  • 1
    Note: ligatures were in themselves very common in Latin writing, just not in the Square Capitals style (the one we think of as ‘Roman’ capitals, chiseled in stone). They were exceedingly common all the way back to BC times in cursive writing, though they were of course purely graphical alternates for convenience in writing and by no means limited to surviving cases like æ/œ. Aug 26, 2015 at 20:02

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.