Why There's A Campaign To Re-Introduce A Historic Letter Back Into The Alphabet

It all stems from Old English.
Maria Roman / 500px via Getty Images

A new campaign hopes to make day-to-day life more gender-inclusive by reintroducing the ancient symbol Æ back into the alphabet.

Five global organisations, Divergenres, Aunt Nell, Gender X, Utopia and WongDoody, are working together to launch a campaign in London and New York called: “Let History Say Thæ Exist.”

The campaign aims “to inspire and educate readers on the power of inclusive language and ultimately, ensure that they are not written out of history”.

What would the new letter be used for?

People who don’t identify with male or female pronouns currently tend to use they/them to describe themselves – but this campaign suggests making it thæ/them instead.

According to the Smithsonian Magazine, this symbol is technically called an “ash” and makes a noise like the “a” in “fast”.

However, the campaign would pronounce the symbol like the “a” in “may” – so “thæ” is pronounced like “they”.

The groups are also publishing a Posterzine (a magazine which folds out to reveal an A1 poster) with the letter and accompanying slogan on it, which will be distributed in various cities as well as London and New York public libraries.

The A and E letters come from Latin script. When combined, it’s known as a ligature – and it is already a letter available on most computers with Google Fonts.

Where has the letter come from?

Although used regularly in Old English (400-1100 AD) – like that famous old epic, Beowulf – it’s fallen out of use in modern day, often replaced with just one of the letters or with the two separate letters.

For instance, ”æfter” has become “after,” ”æfre” which has become “ever” and “archæology” has become “archaeology”.

But it hasn’t fallen out of use altogether.

The character has been promoted to a letter in some languages and is still used in Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic and Faroese languages today, although it has different pronunciations.

Why could this help the LGBTQ+ community?

By increasing representation in the written language, the group hopes this will become a universal option for use in languages where gendered language is the norm, like in English, French, Spanish and German.

According to Statista’s gender identity worldwide survey, 3% of people around the globe identify themselves as gender non-conforming.

Yet, the UK’s Gender Recognition Act 2004 means people can only change their birth certificate sex to male or female – not to non-binary, genderqueer or intersex.

The UK has faced particular scrutiny for its attitude towards the LGBTQ+ community recently, having slipped from 14th to 17th place of 49 European countries on the ILGA’s Rainbow Map and Index this year in part due to the growing anti-trans rhetoric across the country.

Non-binary British actors have also requested an awards category for those who don’t identify as male or female, while certain sports organisations have also stopped those who don’t identify with the gender binary from competing.

The campaign group claimed: “Since language came into existence, the gendered nature of words has rendered non-binary, genderqueer, and intersex individuals invisible in written form.”

It cites the inherent gender association with many nouns, like actor or actress in English, which it claims to have “perpetuated exclusion”.

The campaigners continued: “The Æ letter addresses this issue, specifically designed to provide gender-neutral options across multiple European languages, and brought to life in a way that positions it as an intrinsic part of the language people use daily.”

Charlie Josephine (thæ/he), who stars in the non-binary retelling of Joan of Arc, said: “Life as a non-binary person is constant mental gymnastics with linguistics. I wrestle with these man-made words that never quite fit. Some days it feels playful and cheeky and expansive. Some days I long for neatness, solid clarity, simplicity.“

Journalist and co-director of Aunt Nell and Attitude 101 Honours List 2022, Shivani Dave (thae/them), also said: ”Navigating the world comfortably, finally, with this identifying label I realised just how much I was having to navigate around gendered spaces and phrases.”

Is this the first time language has been modified to recognise more genders?

No – just recently, the words Latino or Latina started to be swapped out for a more gender-neutral word, Latinx, to refer to a person of Latin American descent.

But campaigners claimed this new letter avoids “dehumanising symbols commonly associated with offensive speech”, like * or @, which can sometimes be imposed in words in a bid to make them gender-neutral.

Physical copies of ‘Let History Say Thæ Exist’ will be available to purchase later this month for £12.99 online via the People of Print website and in vendors across the world.

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