Why does ‘s’ look like ‘f’ in old books?


When you look for the first time at a book that was printed before about the 19th century, you see strange looking lower case ‘s’ letters. They look like ‘f’. However, if you look closely, you can see that they don’t have a complete cross-stroke as in ‘f’. They evolved from the way ‘s’ was written in Old English, with a long descending stroke. Here’s how they developed:

 The long ‘s’ was not used as the end of a word. These words are from Sketches of the History of Man, published in 1778:
 


In Old English handwriting and Middle English fonts, you can see some strange looking letters for ‘Th’ and ‘th’. They come from the time before the Romans invaded Britain. When the Romans introduced the Latin language and alphabet, they had no letters for ‘th’ sounds. They did not exist in Latin. Letters had to be borrowed and adapted from old British writing systems such as the runes. There were two capitals and two lower case letters, to represent the two different sounds made by ‘th’. You can hear them in, for example, ‘the’ and ‘three’ (say
them aloud).

There was no sound for ‘v’ in Latin. Even after the letter v was introduced, u was used in printing to represent it. Old English capital W and lower case w were In later centuries, W could be printed as VV. The letter ‘J’ was not used in Old English. ‘I’ was used in its place. You can find this substitution in books right up to the 18th century. In the First Folio of William Shakespeare’s plays, published in 1623, you will see words like these:

ioy (joy), iudge (judge), maiestie (majesty),
haue (have), deuout (devout), inuisible (invisible)

These words are listed under ‘I’ in the first edition of Encyclopædia Britannica, 1771:

jaffa, jam, James, Inca, incident, inverse.

In Old English and Middle English ‘g’ looked different, too. It looked rather like a modern letter ‘y’. At the beginning of a word it was pronounced as a hard g. In the middle of a word, it sounded a bit like the y in ‘layer’. You can see it in the name of the writer Layamon, which originally looked like Lagamon.

To The First Folio of Shakespeare

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