Font requirements

Missing characters to represent Early English and Welsh texts

Just 31 letters are required to represent all words in the English language from Old English to Modern English since the adoption of the Latin alphabet, and 33 letters for English and Welsh together. In addition, both English and Welsh have several letters bearing diacritics. However whilst these 33 letters, with additional diacritics, may represent all words, they are insufficient to reproduce all text. The 31 basic English letters are all available in the major electronic fonts:

  • A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Þ Ð Æ Ƿ Ȝ

The two Welsh letters in addition to these are characterised as a “Medieval Welsh V”, which is represented in modern Welsh with a W, and a “Y with a loop”, for which Modern Welsh uses a plain Y. These two letters are available in very few fonts, and in none of the main commercial fonts.

The letters listed are insufficient properly to represent complete texts since historical texts contain in addition common additional characters and standard digraphs. All are assigned codes in Unicode but few fonts contain the complete set or represent them accurately. Below I have listed the missing characters, with a representation of each in my interpretation of the shape in Times New Roman and in Arial.

Old English

Barred thorn

The abbreviation character for þæt (the, that) I know of no manuscript example of a majuscule barred Thorn. The Unicode exemplar has a weak, short, barely noticeable bar stroke, but manuscripts show the bar as a strong stroke: those of Ælfric’s work have a serif, and on the Beowulf manuscript the stroke though drawn with the narrow stroke of the pen, is long with a small serif at each end for emphasis.

Example manuscript extracts: Ælfric’s Grammar (example 1) and (example 2), Beowulf. Sources: St John’s College, Oxford; The British Library

Tironian et

The Tironian et is the one element of Roman “Tironian notes” shorthand system to endure. It is still used in Irish. In Old English it is very frequent, used as today we use an ampersand. The Tironian et is written such that the top is aligned with the x line, and the rest as a descender beneath the line.

Example manuscript extracts: Ælfric’s Grammar example 1 and example 2.

Sources: St John’s College, Oxford; The British Library.

Early Welsh

Middle-Welsh V

A simple letter, replaced by w in Modern Welsh. It is found in manuscripts from Old Welsh to Early Modern Welsh. The Middle-Welsh V is written on the line. This letter bears a similarity to the African letter Ʋ, ʋ (U+01B2 and U+028B)

Sources: Laws of Hywel Dda (St John’s College, Oxford).

Middle English

Thorn with e above

A Þ + e digraph is the standard abbreviation for “þe” (the). In Middle English manuscripts the e is slightly to the right and not above the height of the whole letter. It may be typed with a “combining character”, U+0364 In most fonts this comes out wrongly both in upper and lower case because the e placed immediately above the middle of the þ will disappear above the maximum line height.

Example manuscript extracts:

Thorn with t above

A Þ + t digraph is the standard abbreviation for “þat” (that). In Middle English manuscripts. The t is slightly to the right and not above the height of the whole letter. It may be typed with a “combining character”, U+036D In most fonts this comes out wrongly both in upper and lower case because the t placed immediately above the middle of the þ will disappear above the maximum line height.

Example manuscript extracts:

Early Modern English

Y with e above

A Y + e digraph is the standard abbreviation for “the“. In many manuscripts the e is imediately above the y, or sitting in the cup of the y, and in some it is slightly to the right, though it appears more common to place it directly above the y. It may be typed with a “combining character”, U+0364 In lower case this comes out well in Times New Roman but not in Arial; the top of the e is sliced off. In upper case neither font displays it properly; the e is cut off because of its height. In Early Modern texts the e is lower down than these fonts provide, and may be smaller.

Example manuscript extracts: Verses on Lord Coke

Y with t above

A Y + t digraph is the standard abbreviation for “that“. It may be typed with a “combining character”, U+036D In standard fonts, it comes out badly, except in Times New Roman lower case, though there is a case for lowering the t further; in Early Modern printed texts, the t is lower; even within the cup of the Y.

Example manuscript extracts:

Verses upon Lord Coke ‘Verses upon Lord Cooke (Sir Edward Coke and Lord Bacon), Sheriffe of Buckingham’ Gonville and Caius College MS 143/193

W with t above

The W + t abbreviates “with“. In standard fonts, it is illegible in upper case; nothing but the bottom stroke of the t appears. In lower case Times New Roman is the best, but in Arial the top of the t is cut off. It may be typed with a “combining character”, U+036D In lower case this comes out well in Times New Roman but not in Arial; the top of the e is sliced off. In upper case neither font displays it properly; the e is cut off because of its height. In Early Modern texts the e is lower down than these fonts provide, and may be smaller.

Example manuscript extracts: Apocalypse poem The font inscription in Wells Cathedral (thanks to the Dean and Chapter) In standard fonts, this digraph comes out badly, except in Times New Roman lower case, though there is a case for lowering the t further.

See also:

  • Summary appendix