The Grammarphobia Blog

An ædifying history

Q: I enjoyed your recent discussion of the diaeresis and other diacritical marks. How about the archaic form “æ”? Is it pronounced with one sound or two? Where is it from? French? German? Is it useful or just cute? Can it be properly written as “ae”? Should we wax nostalgic for æroplanes?

A: When the letters “a” and “e” are printed as one squished-together symbol—“æ”—they form what is known as a digraph (a two-letter symbol) or a ligature.

This symbol represents a diphthong—one sound gliding into another within the same syllable. (We mentioned diphthongs in that blog entry about the diaeresis.)

Words once spelled with “æ” are rarely seen that way today because their spellings have been modernized. And that’s largely because pronunciations have changed and those diphthongs no longer exist.

You mentioned “æroplane,” which is one way that word was spelled in the Wright brothers’ day. It was also spelled as “aeroplane” and sometimes as “aëroplane.”

The “ær” at the beginning of “æroplane” would have rhymed with “payer.” The full word would have been pronounced something like AY-er-o-plain.

Those early spellings (“æroplane,” “aeroplane,” “aëroplane”) reflected the fact that the first syllable had an audible diphthong. Now that it doesn’t, we spell the word “airplane.”

Similarly, the word “æon,” meaning a long period of time, became “aeon” and now is usually spelled “eon.” The word “æsthetic” became “aesthetic” and is now often spelled “esthetic.”

There are scores of other examples. In some cases, the former “æ” words are now spelled with two separate letters (“ae”). But in most, only one letter has been retained, usually the “e.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, English has had two different kinds of “æ” in its history, one from Old English and one from Latin.

The Old English “æ” was not a diphthong. It represented the sound of “a simple vowel, intermediate between a and e,” the OED says. This symbol died out by about 1300, when it was replaced in new spellings by “a,” “e,” or “ee.”

But another “æ” symbol—the one we’re talking about here—was introduced in the 16th century, this time in spellings of English words derived from Latin or Greek.

The symbol was used where the original diphthong was spelled æ in Latin or ?? in Greek.

But here again, the “æ” symbol didn’t last long in English.

As the OED explains, it had only etymological value—that is, it showed a word’s classical ancestry. Once these words became “thoroughly English,” the OED says, so did their spellings.

We still see both “æ” and “ae” in Latin and Greek proper names: “Æneas” and “Aeneas”; “Æsop” and “Aesop”; “Cæsar” and “Caesar.”

But most often the “æ” became “ae” and finally just “e.” Thus the word once spelled “ædify” is now “edify,” and “æther” is now “ether.”

One final example. The word originally spelled “encyclopædia” became “encyclopaedia” and finally, in most modern spellings, “encyclopedia.”

But in this case, says the OED, the whiff of antiquity clings to the word:

“The spelling with æ has been preserved from becoming obsolete by the fact that many of the works so called have Latin titles.”

The most familiar of these living relics is the Encyclopædia Britannica.

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