Few people are aware that some letters originally proposed never made it into the alphabet. One, shaped like a bird's footprint on sand, was thought too common to be suitable. Its proliferation on beaches could cause a distraction, critics argued, giving undue emphasis to the marks of avian movements. Another, closely related to 'o', was originally to have occupied the space between 'm' and 'n' and was omitted only after bitter argument. In the shape of a teardrop, its form was thought to add dignity to the alphabet, and Samuel Johnson1 once described it as the most endearing of the vowels. By the late nineteenth century, however, the letter was seen as 'puny' and 'sentimental', and it was finally excluded from the official alphabet in 1897.
We tend to take the letters of our current alphabet for granted, but some of today's most popular letters were rank outsiders in earlier times. The letter 'e', for example, was rejected by the puritan pilgrims as a profligate sound, heard only in th' bawdy hous, nivir th' church. This familiar and seemingly indispensable vowel might never have been heard in the then newly established American colonies were it not for Edgar Overend, a basket weaver from Sussex, who smuggled the first letter 'e' into the port of Virginia in 1802, disguised as an implement for stripping willow branches. Overend himself was pilloried by an angry crowd on discovery of the forbidden 'e', but not before the letter had passed into common usage in the port.
Of all the alphabetical controversies, none can rival the outcry which greeted the dropping of the highly acclaimed twenty-seventh letter. Protest action culminated in the bloody alphabet riots of the 1920s and 30s: a young school teacher was killed and many more injured when defenders of the letters clashed with Internal Affairs officials at the University of Kent during the summer of 1929. Now shrouded in mystery, no written copies of the letter remain, but old timers recall its 'soft, feather-like' sound which was repeated to babies as they slept, or expressed quietly from the mouth when stars appeared in a deep blue sky. Gavin Montrose, who worked as a typesetter for the Chicago Tribune when the twenty-seventh letter was still in circulation, recalls how its complex curlicues made it a difficult letter to print.
It was like trying to print the sky with a cloud, Montrose remembers, every time you'd set it on the page it seemed to just want to float away. it was the darndest thing.
Now, in university campuses across the western world, the so-called 'apocryphal' letters are experiencing a revival among young students, disillusioned with simply using 'the same twenty-six letters in a different order'. 'We've been denied a part of our history,' says student letter activist Luke McRay. 'The old letters are spirals, teardrops, the tread of birds. Unlike the twenty-six traditional letters which rely on an arbitrary code, the old letters encourage an individual, subconscious reaction.' McRay says he'd like to see some of the old letters reinstated, and new letters developed.
But despite the fond memories of many who recall the twenty-seventh letter, some one-time letter activists are in two minds about the current resurgence of interest in the letters of yesteryear. 'You can ask for the old letters back,'says Joan Polson, a prominent letter activist in the 1940s and life member of the Letter League, 'but the change would come at a cost.' She points to the chequered history of some older letters, recalling how, in the early part of the century, advocates of the twenty-seventh letter were commonly drawn into the dissipation of opium houses. 'If you re-introduced the twenty-seventh letter now.' Polson claims, 'the young people wouldn't know how to use it. They wouldn't have the discipline.'
From this vantage point, it seems Joan Polson has little to fear. In today's world, where billions of transactions every day rely on the accuracy and synchronicity of contemporary alphabet technologies, it is unlikely that the old letters will ever be more than a quaint relic of less automated times. As for new letters, though, it seems there are an increasing number who share Luke McRay's belief that these will be developed, and soon, as people struggle to fit today's thoughts into the faded letters of the last millennium.