I wonder if the English language had any writing or script before the adoption of Latin.

This question came about in a conversation I had with a friend about the writing of vowels in English. According to wikipedia, there are 20+ vowels in the English language, but the written English language currently has only 5 "drawings"... that come from Latin. By the way, is a letter the drawing or the sound?

So, that begs the question, if an older script was in use... did it have 20+ drawings, one for each vowel?

  • 1
    A letter is the drawing (the technical term is "glyph"), not the sound. English spelling, for various reasons, doesn't really represent English pronunciation, so that non-native speakers usually hafta learn the pronunciation separately from the spelling, like Spanish genders for nouns or German noun plurals. Latin alphabetic writing entered England early, but there were various indigenous writing systems (futhark is the term to look up) among Germanic peoples. Mostly used for inscriptions. Feb 8, 2022 at 23:48
  • Yes to what @JohnLawler said. We can say that the 20+ vowel phonemes of English are typically represented by 5 graphemes (ignoring "y", I suppose). Feb 9, 2022 at 2:03
  • There are 'y' (a glyph often representing a vowel) and 'w' (a glyph very rarely representing a vowel, in say 'cwm') to add to a e i o u. Feb 9, 2022 at 15:20

1 Answer 1


Futhorc was a runic alphabet of Anglo-Saxon tribes that developed out of northwestern Germanic/Scandinavian runes (Elder Futhark). Wikipedia tells us they were likely used to write Old English (Anglo-Saxon) from the 5th century CE to the introduction of the Latin alphabet in about the 8th century.

A rune is a glyph that has a meaning of its own as well as a sound value. Some runes carried over into Old English, notably thorn--which made the TH sound--and ash--which made the short A sound--precisely because Latin did not have letters for these.

But our vast modern collection of vowels developed much later in the Middle Ages, after the Latin alphabet was well established, as a result of the Great Vowel Shift (1400-1700). At roughly the same time, Norman French scribes chose not to use the "foreign" runes like ash and thorn when writing English and instead wrote A and TH, further forcing English to conform to Latin writing despite the difference in sounds.

Wikipedia has a good guide to Futhorc and explanation of the Great Vowel Shift.

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    Ah... so the development of 20+ vowels happened later, after the Latin letters were already adopted in English. Feb 9, 2022 at 3:38
  • There's a lot of information on Wikipedia about the development of English phonology (the system of vowels and consonants) and English pronunciation, including Phonological history of English, English phonology and entries on specific historical forms such as Old English/Old English phonology.
    – Stuart F
    Feb 9, 2022 at 8:53
  • It may be worthwhile to note that runic alphabets also ultimately come from the same source as the Latin alphabet
    – herisson
    Feb 9, 2022 at 18:04
  • Its also worthwhile to note that the Latin alphabet was already unsuitable for Old English. The language was respelled after early writing attempts as well. The Latin alphabet seems not to have been suitable for the range of OE diphthongs and certainly wasn't great for consonants such that several letters were imported from runes to fill the gap (notably thorn).
    – siride
    Feb 9, 2022 at 18:20
  • 20+ is a wild exaggeration. No dialect of English I'm familiar with has more than 16 vowel phonemes, and that's counting phonemic diphthongs like /ay, aw, oy/. My own midwestern American dialect has 11 vowel phonemes, and those three phonemic diphthongs. Feb 9, 2022 at 20:30

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