This is the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, the Right Honourable Walter Menzies [MING-IS]
Campbell. He's the MP for North East Fife, and in his youth he was an Olympic sprinter,
holding the British record for the 100 metres.
I want to talk about his name.
Walter Menzies [MING-IS] Campbell. Ming for short. Most people who aren't Scottish would
look at that middle name and pronounce it MENZ-IES. In fact, a lot of people do pronounce
it that way. So what's going on here?
To find out, we have to go back into history.
Our modern English alphabet hasn't always looked like this. It evolved over time. The
full A to Z that we have today didn't settle down until about the 18th century.
In 1011, a monk called Byrhtferð -- and I'm probably mispronouncing that -- wrote down
what he considered to be the alphabet -- what we would now call the "Old English" Latin
Alphabet -- in alphabetical order as part of a manuscript. Now since England in 1011
had no mass communication, this will not be definitive: it's an example of one set of
letters and ordering. But it shows, pretty clearly, the major differences over a thousand
So. Let's handle the letters that we all recognise first. I and J, at this point in history,
are the same letter. They wouldn't split for centuries. If you've ever seen Indiana Jones
and the Last Crusade, you'll remember Sean Connery muttering about "Jehovah starting
with an I". Which does raise the question of why there was a J on that deathtrap. But
U and V are combined as well, and there's no W at all. Instead, that harp-like glyph,
the wynn, was used for /w/. After the Normans invaded in the 12th century, the wynn would
fall out of use, getting replaced with a double U. Which became a W.
Byrhtferð included two symbols for 'and' in his alphabet. Actually in his alphabet.
If you speak any Gaelic languages, you may recognise the second one, it's still in use
today in a couple of places. Then there's the Wynn, the /w/. Then there's the Thorn
and the Eth, used for "th" sounds.
Last up is the ash, which represented a vowel halfway between a and e.
These letters are still used in some European languages: Icelandic still has thorn and ash.
What killed them all in English? Well, time for a start: some of them just dropped out
of use and were replaced -- or grew similar to -- other letters. But secondly, there was
the advent of movable type and the printing press: for example, presses imported from
Germany didn't have a thorn. They did have a y, which, as the thorn had evolved over
time in the British Isles, was considered close enough: that's why, to this day, we
still see "The Olde" with a Y. It's the last vestige of thorn in English.
Still doesn't explain "Ming-is", though.
Well, by Middle English, another letter had popped up: yogh. Now, this could represent
all sorts of sounds in English -- but in Scots, it generally represented only a couple of
things: including the 'ya' sound. And yet again, the printers didn't have the right
letters in their boxes of movable type, so they used the closest thing they had: a Z.
"Ming-is" became... well, still "Ming-is". And a few hundred years later, here we are.
Some people switched the pronunciation; some didn't. If you grew up in the UK before the
turn of the millennium, you will remember when John Menzies [MENZ-IES] shops were in
every high street.
But here's my question: has the English alphabet stopped evolving now? Those of us with British
or American keyboards only have 26 letters at our disposal, and typing anything else
is enough of a pain that most people don't bother. When we use all of those letters,
and only those letters, regularly, and their design is codified into every font on every
computer in the world... could there still be room for change? Or is this the last alphabet
that English will have?
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