I have a book called "A guide to the birds of Trinidad and Tobago" and the author is named as "Richard ffrench" with a small "f". The author's name is spelled the same way by the Library of Congress, with a lower-case letter starting the surname. What is the origin of this strange spelling? I would guess this "ff" is supposed to represent some special letter which is not a normal part of the Roman alphabet.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary's page for F:
In manuscripts a capital F was often written as ff. A misunderstanding of this practice has caused the writing of Ff or ff at the beginning of certain family names, e.g. Ffiennes, Ffoulkes.
(The pilgrimage of the life of man, English by John Lydgate, A. D. 1426 is an example of a manuscript where a lot of words were written this way, such as in "[...] an holsomme Refuge
whan they fflen to the ffor socour [...]".)
I realize it’s been 18 months since this has been asked, but here is your answer:
With attention paid to the paragraph, “In some cases, the name does not start with an initial capital, but with a lower-case f; the double F is derived from the blackletter F. The Irish branch is considered to be one of the "Tribes of Galway", having been there since the 13th century.”
- (ff) was not word-initial, originally, and there was no uppercase for it; the doubling was to indicate that a short vowel preceded, within the same word (at the beginning of the word, there could not be a preceding vowel).
- (f) came to replace digraph (ph)
Keeping the ff small might have been to mark off the difference from phrene, if to derive ffrench from "de Freynes" as here;
Google translate would show the Danish inferiore freniske arterier as inferior French arteries, even today. ;)
- Monks and scribes marked off a correlation with the Armenian small letter ben, բ
The Armenian alphabet and Latin, Coptic, Georgian, as well as Cyrillic scripts were sister systems.
One of earliest translations of the Bible was into Armenian, in the 5th-century (I do not know, if there were earlier in distribution; Wycliffe was XIV, Jakub Wujek was XVI century).
In the 18 century it became customary to capitalize digraph first letter, therefore the spelling Ffrench is not incorrect, as well as the spelling ffrench may be retained, for name histories.