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I came across this piece of text and I for the life of me can't understand why "twelve" is written tpelf. I have encircled other numbers that are strange.

My friend who lives in New York sent me this and told me that "twelve" was pronounced with a P sound and it has now diverged from how it actually was. He said that "twelve" was tpelf but people changed it to twelve like we have changed "going to" to "gonna" and "want to" to "wanna".

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Source: The History of English Spelling By Christopher Upward, George Davidson

I have underlined other strange words too. When I search "tpelf" on Google, it says "Linkou Hotel - New Taipei City | Four Points by Sheraton Linkou" and other places and I don't know what to do. How did it come about? Can anyone help me?

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  • W after Consonants – Mari-Lou A Jan 6 at 13:09
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    Abbreviated phrases are quite a different phenomenon than sound changes. – tripleee Jan 7 at 10:00
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    Someone needs to have words with the typesetters for that book. They've really messed it up there. Where it says "Initial T before ..." that's not a p, (look closely and you'll note the lack of a little bit sticking up at the top), but it's also not a wynn like it should be. Looks like they just used a lower-case rho from the Greek alphabet. But then they switched to p for all the type in italics. It's a 2011 edition, so there's no excuse, they can't say that they didn't have the character available in their type case. – DrHyde Jan 8 at 14:03
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TL;DR

Your friend is incorrect. It's not *tpelf with p, but tƿelf with ƿWynn—which was the Old English (OE) letter to represent the phoneme /w/.

So twelve was tƿelf 1. Twenty was tƿēntiȝ 2. Two was tƿā 3.

Historical prelude to W

The letter that looks like a P is actually:

Ƿ (ƿ)

It's called Wynn which was a runic letter in Old English alphabet for the phoneme /w/. 'Wynn' literally means 'joy' and itself would've been written:

ƿynn


It's how Old English4 looked like (Beowulf):

Beowulf

Ƿ can be seen in the first line of 'Beowulf'. The first word is HǷÆT ('what').


The OE alphabet was based on the Latin alphabet. The Latin alphabet of the time did not have the letter ⟨w⟩, therefore OE scribes borrowed the rune ⟨ᚹ⟩ to represent the /w/. They adapted it as the Latin letter Wynn ⟨ƿ⟩.

It was still in use after the Norman Conquest, but was soon supplanted by uu (whence the name double-u) under the influence of Normans. Middle English (ME) scribes adopted a practice of writing certain letters using a sequence of a particular short downstroke of the pen/quill, called a minim. A dotless i was a single minim and looked like:

ʅ

In particular, minims were used for the following letters:

  • i, one minim: ʅ
  • u/v and n, two minims: ʅʅ
  • m, three minims: ʅʅʅ
  • w (double-u), four minims: ʅʅʅʅ

This is how minims looked like:

Minims

And the word 'minim' itself would've been written:

'minim' minims


In Middle English period, w was written with four identical minims i.e. as two U's (ʅʅʅʅ), so they called it double-u and the name stuck. It would've been written something like:

double u minims

Early printers used two V's (vv) for the double-u and was later on revamped to a single letter w.

In Present day English, it's still called double-u.



𝐍𝐎𝐓𝐄𝐒

  1. The f changed to a v because of intervocalic fricative voicing. Old English had a phonetic property called 'intervocalic fricative voicing', whereby non-velar fricatives—/s, f, θ/—became voiced when they were flanked by two vowels, or a vowel and another voiced consonant (i.e. OE didn't contrast voiced and voiceless fricatives). So bath was bæþ and would've been pronounced [bæθ], bathe was baþian and would've been pronounced [ˈbɑðiɑn]. Wolf was wulf and would've been pronounced [wulf], wolves on the other hand was wulfas and would've been pronounced [ˈwulvɑs]. I've explained it in this answer to another question. tƿelf was followed by a suffix beginning with a vowel which changed the f to a v.

  2. ȝ is called Yogh and it represented the /j/ ('y') sound in this instance: /ˈtweːn.tij/

  3. The W in 'two' was pronounced in Old English. The W was lost somewhere between Old and Middle English. There was a sound change through which a /w/ was lost in the environment of a preceding [s] or [t] and a following back vowel ([ɒ ɔ o ɑ u] etc). So 'two' was tƿā and it was pronounced /twɑː/ in Early Middle English, it became /twoː/ and then it lost the /w/ and became /toː/ (the vowel /oː/ was shifted to /uː/ because of the Great Vowel Shift). I have explained the W's in 'sword', 'swore' and 'two' in this answer

  4. Old English was much more phonetic and highly inflected than Modern English. Every word was spelt how it was pronounced, there were no silent letters in OE.


References:

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    Most modern editions of Old English texts, at least in my experience, replace wynn with a W, which is one of the reasons it's not better known! – rjpond Jan 6 at 13:13
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    @rjpond: Yes. They do that for the sake of legibility. There was another letter þorn (thorn, for the th sounds) which also looked like a P, so it would be confusing. – Void Jan 6 at 13:21
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    It looks like the next word after "HǷÆT" is "ǷE". Could that be the precursor to the modern word "we"? – OmarL Jan 6 at 21:23
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    @OmarL It is! The opening can be translated as 'Lo! We of the Spear-Danes...' although there is a whole world of discussion about good ways to translate Hƿæt (one recent translation uses 'Bro!'). See bl.uk/learning/timeline/item126510.html – dbmag9 Jan 7 at 0:01
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    May I assume "Lating alphabet" (in this answer) is a simple typo, and not some interesting bunny trail I can explore for several hours? – Jamin Grey Jan 7 at 3:19

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