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Icelandic's other unique letter, the thorn, is obviously Runic (and near the front of the Futhark). Eth was not defined in the "First Grammatical Treatise" of 1140-1180. It seems like both the Runic and the Latin orthographies for Norse were considered complete without a symbol for its sound. Wikipedia says the eth "originated in Irish writing" but does not explain how it might have been transmitted into or out of Anglo-Saxon, nor how Icelandic came to use it.

Where did the eth come from, and how and when was it chosen for use in Icelandic?

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The modern Icelandic alphabet was introduced by Danish linguist Rasmus Rask – and perhaps a few colleagues – in the 19th century. He was trying to respect the 12th century text The First Grammatical Treatise about Old Norse as much as possible.

In particular, "eth" was not used for a few centuries before Rask (which is why Rask's reform had a big impact on the practical life in the 19th century) but it was used in Old Norse around the 12th century.

So it's historically misleading to say that "eth" is Anglo-Saxon: when one gets further to the past, to the true origins, it's a North Germanic (Old Norse) letter. At the very beginning, the first usage of the letter was in Irish (meaning the Celtic language) but there always existed some cultural exchange between the "adjacent" islands.

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  • If I understand correctly, the settlement of Iceland took place before eth was borrowed from Celtic. If Norse speakers and writers coped without this character both before its introduction and during its period of disuse, I wonder why Rask called for reviving it. – Aaron Brick May 13 '16 at 5:56
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    I don't know for sure which event came first. People can import letters from other cultures at any moment - while they're home and while they're in a different country, right? ... Well, why Rask did it. You may ask the same question about any reform of the alphabet in the world's history, right? John Huss introduced the diacritics in the 15th century and Čechs began to use these bullšit signs everywhere although they had previously survived without them. In 1835, Ljudevit Gaj imported those letters to Yugoslav languages although they had previously survived without them, too. And so on. – Luboš Motl May 13 '16 at 6:01
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    English survives quite well without a way of distinguising /θ/ from /ð/; but a consequence of this lack is that when an English speaker learns a language which does have both those sounds (such as Welsh, Icelandic, or Albanian), they may have difficulty understanding that the sounds are in fact distinct. – Colin Fine May 13 '16 at 18:51

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