A Lament for Ash

October 4, 2010

Dear Ash,

I’m writing because I’m worried about you. You seem to be disappearing before our very eyes. I know, I know, your days of glory were a few centuries ago. Modern English isn’t as kind to you as Old English- but then, it was practically another language, wasn’t it? And at least some vestiges of your presence remained; your cousins thorn, eth, and wynn haven’t been so lucky. Nowadays they’re barely recognized; people panic on seeing them, mistaking thorn and wynn for strange ps, eth for demented ds, and just staring blankly at yogh. At least they know how to pronounce you.

Family portrait: ash, thorn, eth, wynn, and yogh.

So why have you left? I could understand your splitting from a single letter, æ, to two separate letters, ae. After all, language evolves, and even though mediæval may have become mediaeval, we still knew it was you.

It was subtle in the beginning. First you dropped from American English. Encyclopaedia became encyclopedia, archaeology became archeology, even nebulae and formulae became nebulas and formulas. We didn’t mind that too much- just shook our heads at those silly Americans. After all, your classic grace and elegance still enlivened our brand of English.

 But now you’re dropping out everywhere. Soon people won’t know you at all; it took me forever to even find a picture of you. Even in the Commonwealth, my doctor tells me I’m anemic, not anaemic. I’m enrolled in a Medieval Society class. And just today, I opened up my Canadian newspaper to find an article on… esthetics.

Dear, sweet, Ash. The word esthetic is not aesthetically pleasing at all.

Don't leave us, Ash.

I understand that we may be in the middle of another vowel shift, particularly where I live. And I understand that languages have to grow and evolve- they won’t survive otherwise. That doesn’t change the fact that you’re special. There is so much history contained in you, so much beauty. Using you always gives me a little thrill, and makes me feel connected to my own linguistic past. Please don’t go away. We need you.



  1. I like the “ae” in these words: formulae, archaeologist, encyclopaedia, etc.

    And I never knew it was called Ash.


  2. Great way of putting it…I too am nostalgic for those conjoined twins, but it was inevitable that they would succumb to modern humanity’s drive toward simplicity at all costs.


  3. @Nancy: it’s also called “Latin ligature ae,” but I much prefer the name “ash.” Particularly since it derives from the rune for ash tree. 😀

    @Michael: Alas, I fear you’re right. I’ve mostly seen it treated as an alternative spelling -chimaera just as valid as chimera- but it was seeing that “esthetic” that really got to me.

    • I love those little funny letters – always wanted to know the correct terminology for them, thanks! Methinks it’s time to create a few new letters to replace the ones we’ve lost.

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