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J, U, W are included in ISO basic Latin alphabet which consists of 26 letters. However,

  • The classic Latin has only 23 letters, and J was only used as a variant of I as σ do to ς.
  • J, U were not distinguished from I, V in Europe until late Medieval, and were not regard as different letters as late as 18th Century in English.
  • Many Europe languages do not have a J or V(sometimes U instead) in their alphabet.
  • W, first the digraph UU or VV then ligature as implied in its name, and not included in many European language alphabets, was included in ISO basic Latin alphabet.
  • Meanwhile, Æ and Œ which are also common no only even in English but also in Medieval Latin and other Europe languages, however, didn't survive in the ISO basic Latin alphabet.
  • Ch, a digraph dated back to 2 Century BC, was included in Gerke's version of Morse code and came to standard by ITU (as do Ä, Ö, Ü), didn't survive, too.

Why were J, U, W included? Is it just a coincidence that English is the only major language that used all these letters and no more in its orthography?

Related: Does any language using the Latin alphabet have a unique name for "w"?

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  • 42
    The ISO was founded in the 20th century and seeks to address contemporary needs. It's not especially concerned with how useful medieval scribes would find its standards.
    – Cairnarvon
    Feb 24 at 14:02
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    Is there any Latin-script-based orthography without u? And any in Europe besides Italian and Sardinian and so on without j? Feb 24 at 17:42
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    Don't forget that the original Latin alphabet also lacked <G>, the letter <C> was read as both [k] and [g]. <G> was introduced by freedman Spurius Carvilius Ruga, the first Roman to open a fee-paying school, who taught around 230 BCE: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G
    – Yellow Sky
    Feb 24 at 18:31
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    Latin in that name does not reference the Latin language, but rather the Latin script, as opposed to Arabic, Hebrew, Cyrillic, the various Indian scripts, Thai, the various ideogram-based scripts, and many many others.
    – jcaron
    Feb 25 at 17:37
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    @MichaelHardy They're rare but attested in Classical Latin, in words like kalendae or zōna. Same for Y.
    – Draconis
    Feb 25 at 19:19
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Despite its name, the ISO Basic Latin Alphabet isn't particularly concerned with representing Latin. It was developed in the modern day, so the fact that I~J and U~V weren't consistently distinguished until the 18th century isn't relevant—they're consistently distinguished now.

But the observation that the ISO Basic Latin Alphabet aligns exactly with what's needed for English and not with what's needed for most other European languages is an important one, and gets at the core of the answer.

A lot of early work in electronic transmission of text was done in America, and as such, the early codes used were designed pretty much exclusively for English. It's the same reason why American varieties of Morse code didn't have codes for ß and ø, and why American typewriters didn't have keys for them: they just weren't needed for English, and including them was an additional expense for not much benefit.

In the 60s, American manufacturers standardized "ASCII" (the American Standard Code for Information Interchange) to make it easier for their devices to talk to each other—without any particular consideration given to other languages, for the same reason as with typewriters and telegraphs. And due to the significant influence of American tech manufacturers, the original seven-bit ASCII eventually got enshrined in international standards; variations like eight-bit ASCII and eventually Unicode tended to extend it, not modify the core of it, with non-English letters like ß and ø relegated to higher codepoints separate from the English alphabet.

And thus, the "ISO Basic Latin Alphabet" is just a fancy name for the English alphabet, circa the 1960s and 1970s when these standards were first devised. It's a historical accident, really, nothing more.

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    You could argue that Basic Latin doesn’t even cater to English as such, but specifically to American English, excluding codes for variant forms primarily found in British English such as œconomics, mediæval, façade, café (in increasing order of usage). Feb 24 at 17:37
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    @JanusBahsJacquet True, though even in British English I'm more used to seeing oe and ae than œ and æ. I wonder if there was a measurable decline in the non-ASCII variants in published works when electronic communication caught on (and thus people saw and used the ASCII ones more)?
    – Draconis
    Feb 24 at 17:45
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    I’d definitely say œ and especially æ were more common in the ’50s than they are now, but they’ve been in steady decline for well over a century. I’m sure the onset of electronic communication had some measurable effect, but I would guess it’s less significant than the general decline that was already underway. Feb 24 at 21:42
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    @chrylis-cautiouslyoptimistic- In English, the ligatures are non-canonical and can always be substituted for <ae, oe>. In other languages, they are canonical and not equivalent to the sequences (cf. Danish aer ‘pets, strokes’ vs ær ‘maple tree’). Even in English, not all cases of <ae, oe> can be written <æ, œ>, so the two are not bidirectionally equivalent (e.g., fœtus, though unetymological, is still seen, but *gœs and *dœs are utterly unknown in Modern English). And as the question mentions, <w> is just a ligature of <uu> or <vv>. Feb 25 at 0:21
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    @JanusBahsJacquet: The claim about w being a ligature doesn't seem like it would have emerged in a vacwm.
    – supercat
    Feb 25 at 14:25
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Is it just a coincidence that English is the only major language that used all these letters and no more in its orthography?

Is it a coincidence? No.

But that's not the right test, because there are other letters that are not core to the orthographies of all major languages. (k, y, x and q, for example).

A more consistent test then would be if the letter is used in the orthographies of multiple major languages. And on that, j, u and w certainly qualify.

enter image description here

A map of pronunciations of j, and thus implicitly of where j is used. In fact, j does have a pronunciation in Italian, where it is still used in family names and placenames, and pronounced similary to i in the modern orthography.

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  • Nice map. Do you have that for more letters?
    – Joachim W
    Feb 25 at 14:21
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    It was just stolen from Wikipedia. Looks like there is one for u too, and also for c. Feb 25 at 20:07
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    I believe that Italy should be blue too, since the primarily pronunciation for J in Italian is /j/. P.S. Interestinly that most of the Latin words which had the J are pronounced with /dʒ/ (like in English), but are written (for the sake of simplicity) with G instead, e.g. maggiore (major), giugno (June), giustizia (justice) and even Gesù (Jesus).
    – trolley813
    Feb 26 at 6:34
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    @trolley813 I agree, but I would point out that most of those Italian words in Italian are considered loans from local languages where j is more core, so it could be better for the map to show those languages. Mar 1 at 7:50
  • Hi, can you give the source of the picture? Or some source where I can find similar colorized maps based on native pronunciations? Mar 1 at 10:39

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