You already know that there are 26 letters in the English alphabet, right? But English isn’t the only alphabet out there, is it? One of the United States’ newest states, Hawaii, even has its own alphabet — albeit a much shorter one. And did you know that there used to be a 27th letter in our alphabet? Yep! You probably didn’t study it in school, or at least not the same way you learned about the letter P. So, listen, it’s totally understandable if you occasionally wonder to yourself, How many letters are in the alphabet? Especially if you’re currently helping teach your child the alphabet and want to make sure you get it right. After all, it’s been a minute since we parents were preschoolers.
Don’t worry, though; we’re going to break it down for you like you’re in the “explain like I’m five” subReddit so you can more easily take this information to your kids. We have all the facts you didn’t know you needed so that you can be a veritable alphabet genius by the end of this article. The Sesame Street gang would be proud. (And, you know, what more could you ask for?)
How many letters are in the English alphabet?
The English alphabet has 26 letters in it. You may also be asking, “How many consonants are in the alphabet?” Or, “How many vowels are in the alphabet?” Well, to answer those questions, there are 21 regular consonants and five regular vowels. The consonants are B, C, D, F, G, H, J, K, L, M, N, P, Q, R, S, T, V, W, X, Y, and Z. The vowels are A, E, I, O, and U, although the letter Y is sometimes used as a vowel, too.
Vowel sounds differ from consonant sounds because each letter often has multiple sounds. (Think of all the ways you can pronounce the letter A just by using words like apple, fall, or area.) Consonants, generally each only have one sound that they make. There are a few exceptions to this, with letters like Y, C, and G. The letter Y is, of course, the most significant exception. It works as both a vowel and a consonant, depending on where it falls in a word. For instance, Y is a consonant when used in the word “yum.” However, it’s a vowel when used in “why” or “rhythm.”
But, what about the 27th letter of the alphabet?
Believe it or not, you’re already familiar with the 27th letter of the alphabet. It was known as “et,” and the letter was actually the ampersand symbol or “&.” While modern writers simply use the & to mean “and,” it historically existed as its own letter. Seem strange? The Latin word “et” literally translates to “and.” Also, linguists put the Latin symbols for E and T together to form our ampersand. It was created during the very first century and used through the 17th century. You could typically find it at the end of the alphabet until that time, right after Z.
Wait! What happened to it?
Et was “re-bracketed.” When singing or saying the alphabet, the order went “…X, Y, Z, and, and.” It was awkward. Over time, people started saying, “…and, per se, and.” Eventually, it fell the way of many words in that it became something altogether different. It’s similar to how the phrase “you all” is often just “y’all” in many parts of the country. “And, per se, and” evolved into “ampersand.” It’s also how we eventually began using “an” before words that start with vowels instead of just that awkward “a.” Now that letter of the alphabet is typically only used in a stylized fashion, and English speakers spell out the word “and” when adding to their list. Weird, huh?
When was the letter J invented?
The letter J has a fascinating history. At first, J and I were considered the same character. That’s part of the reason the letters are next to each other in the alphabet. It was also the last letter added to the alphabet. It was Italian Renaissance grammarian Gian Giorgio Trissino who created the letter J. It was his idea to give the letter I and J two different sounds.
How many letters are in other alphabets?
While the Arabic alphabet looks nothing like ours, it’s certainly beautiful — and it’s the second most widely used alphabet writing system in the world, per Britannica. It’s also similar to the English alphabet in its number of characters. There are 28 letters, or characters, in the Arabic alphabet. Most interestingly, though, all of the letters in the Arabic alphabet represent consonants. It’s also written right to left.
Before the British colonized Hawaii, it had its own culture and language. The Hawaiian alphabet consists of only 13 letters: A, E, H, I, K, L, M, N, O, P, U, and W. Even this is a colonized version of their language and alphabet, cultivated by missionaries attempting to translate a Bible in the early 19th century. It gets a little more complicated when you add the letters that can be used with or without accents (or “diphthongs”), but that’s the basic gist. Another interesting fact about the Hawaiian alphabet? It’s put into a different order than the English alphabet, with all vowels grouped at the beginning.
Many Russian letters look relatively similar to ours. However, their alphabet extends to a whopping 33 characters. It consists of 20 consonants, ten vowels, one semivowel, and two modifiers that change the pronunciation of that letter when placed after a consonant or before a vowel. While many of their letters look similar to ours, you don’t pronounce them the same. For instance, the letter that looks like our E actually makes a “y” sound. Depending on where the E falls in the word, it could be pronounced “yeh” or “yo.” They also have a letter that looks like the pi symbol, which Russian speakers pronounce like our P.
The Hebrew alphabet, also called the Ktav Ashuri, is also interesting. Its characters look nothing like English characters, and there are only 22 letters. Interestingly enough, there’s also no case. So, you won’t find lower or upper case letters — they’re all the same. Aside from the Hebrew alphabet and the Ktav Ashuri, people sometimes refer to this alphabet as Jewish script, block script, or square script. Like the Arabic alphabet, it’s written right to left.
Around the fifth century BCE, the Greek alphabet was divided into two principal branches called the Ionic and the Chalcidian. In 403 BCE, the Ionic alphabet was used in Athens, which eventually became the standard and what we know today as the classical Greek alphabet. It has 24 letters and seven vowels. Before 500 BCE, the Greek alphabet was written from right to left but eventually changed to left to right.