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Classical Grammar, Lesson 01. The English Letters

Welcome to the Classical Grammar course in the Classical Liberal Arts Academy. In this lesson, we will begin the study of the English letters. To study this lesson well, follow the instructions given in the article, “How to Study for Mastery“.


  1. The English language has twenty-six letters: Aa, Bb, Cc, Dd, Ee, Ff, Gg, Hh, Ii, Jj, Kk, Ll, Mm, Nn, Oo, Pp, Qq, Rr, Ss, Tt, Uu, Vv, Ww, Xx, Yy, Zz.

As we study languages in the Classical Liberal Arts Academy, we will find that Greek, Latin and English use a different number of letters. Greek uses twenty-four, Latin uses twenty-three and English uses twenty-six.

Note that we are not saying that there are twenty-six sounds in English, but letters. Unlike Greek and Latin, English letters can be used to represent a number of different sounds. Make sure you keep letters and sounds separate.

2. Those letters which can be sounded by themselves, are called vowels. There are five vowels: A, E, I, O, U.

The English word “vowel” is derived from the Latin word vox, which means “voice”. These five letters are used to represent a number of different sounds, all of which are vowels. Vowels are letters that represent sounds that can form syllables by themselves.

3. Two vowels coming together form a diphthong, when the two sounds are blended into one, that neither of them is quite lost. The only proper diphthongs in our language are EU, OI, OU; but two vowels are often used to mark a simple vowel sound.

Before learning of a diphthong, we must understand the relationship between vowels and syllables. Normally, every syllable in a word expresses a single vowel sound. For example, in the word English, there are two vowel sounds and, therefore, two syllables. In the word understanding, there are four vowel sounds and, therefore, four syllables.

A diphthong is a special pair of vowels that are not sounded in separate syllables, but are sounded together in one. The word diphthong is derived from the Greek word di-phthongoi, which means “two sounds”. Thus, a diphthong is a pair of vowels that are not divided, but spoken together in one syllable.

The “proper” diphthongs are those that actually fulfill the definition of a diphthong given here. Both letters represent a sound and both sounds are spoken together in one syllable. An “improper” diphthong is a pair of vowel letters that are kept together in a syllable but are not spoken as two sounds.

4. Those letters which cannot be sounded by themselves, are called consonants.

There are twenty-six letters used in English and five of them are vowels. Therefore, twenty-one of the English letters are not used to represent sounds that can be spoken by themselves. These letters are called “consonants”, which is derived from the Latin words cum (with) sonantes (sounding).

When we say that consonants are letters that cannot be sounded by themselves, we do not simply mean that they can be combined with other consonants, for they would still not be able to be sounded. We mean that they must be sounded with a vowel, forming a syllable. Consonants are letters which cannot form a syllable by themselves.

The different parts of the mouth, principally the palate, the tongue, and the lips, are called the organs of speech. The vowel sounds are formed rather by the voice passing through the cavity of the mouth more or less enlarged in different directions, than by the action of the palate, tongue, or lips. But in sounding a consonant there is always some pressing of the organs. No consonant can be spoken or heard without some helping sound. If it has not the distinct sound of a vowel, it must have something of a hiss, hum, or breathing.

5. Y is a consonant when it stands at the beginning of a word or syllable, but a vowel in other positions.

The letter Y is used to represent a number of sounds in English. In the words duty and dry we see the two sounds represented when it serves as a vowel. In the word yellow, we see the consonant sound (ye-) represented at the beginning of a word.

6. W after a vowel in the same syllable, is also a mere vowel.

The letter W is a consonant, for it can never form a syllable without a vowel being added to it. The rule here states when the letter W follows a vowel in a syllable, it functions like a vowel. We see this in the words law, cow, bow, and so on.

7. Vowels pronounced by themselves, or with consonants, form syllables: syllables, by themselves or with other syllables, form words: words are used as signs of ideas (or conceptions): and words are put together so as to form sentences, expressing thoughts, opinions and the like.

A syllable is a sound or combination of sounds expressed in a single breath. A word is a combination of syllables used to express an idea. Don’t get spoken and written words confused. Spoken words are used to express ideas. Written words are used to express spoken words. When we wish to join ideas together to express a judgment, a wish, a command or a question, we form sentences. We speak in sentences, and sentences are made of words. Therefore, words are called the “parts of speech”.


In this lesson, we study the letters of the English language. This study is called “Orthography” and is the study of the letters and sounds of a language. We learned that letters are joined together to make syllables, syllables are joined together to make words, and words are joined together to make sentences. At the end of the lesson, we learned that words are the parts of speech. In the second part of Grammar, we will “Etymology”, which is the study of the parts of speech.

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