If you were (according to my usual scenario) sedated, abducted and awoken in a foreign country, then a glimpse of a road-sign featuring all three of these special letters would mean you were in one of two places—Norway or Denmark. These are the three additional characters that go to make up the 29-letter Dano-Norwegian Alphabet—added, in the order shown above, after the letter Z of the standard 26-letter Latin alphabet used in English. They also demonstrate three different ways of fusing together two letters to make one new letter—stick them together side by side (a ligature), superimpose them, or place one above the other. The Å character represents the sound /ɔ/ in both Danish and Norwegian—like the vowel in English “pot”, if the word is spoken with the tongue high and the lips very rounded, as we do in Scotland. Ø is pronounced the same as its phonetic character /ø/—the vowel in French deux or German schön. In Norwegian, the vowel Æ is (as its shape suggests) midway between the open front “ah” and “eh” sounds—it’s the /æ/ sound of the vowel in “act”, if that word is spoken by someone with the “posh English” tones affected by the actors of Downton Abbey. In Danish, the sound has moved to plain /ɛ/, as in “bet”.
So Norwegian and Danish feature all three letters, doing very slightly different jobs. But if you see Æ and Ø only, then you’re looking at Faeroese, a fact that could be confirmed by checking for the presence of the letter edh (Ð), too. And if a careful survey turns up only Æ then it’s probably Icelandic, which features both the edh and thorn (Þ) characters, letters that I’ve written about previously. Å on its own is most likely Swedish—the Swedes use Ö instead of Ø, and Ä instead of Æ.
So these letters are very strong indicators that you’re in a Scandinavian country, particularly given that they also crop up in the orthographies of several of the minority Sámi languages spoken in Norway and Sweden.
From their origins in the Germanic languages of northern Europe, all these letters have leaked out, individually, into alphabets used to write various minority languages in Africa, South America, Europe and the Pacific. Of these, the only one most Westerners might have heard of is Walloon, spoken by around half a million people in Belgium. Walloon uses a ring accent to modify the sound of the letter A, but doesn’t treat the combination as a separate letter of the alphabet.
About the only place outside Europe where you might encounter one of these letters on a road sign is the island of Guam, where Chamorro has about 50,000 speakers, who view Å as a separate letter of the alphabet. The Chamorro name of the island’s capital is Hagåtña.
Now, a little about the origin and usage of the three individual letters.
The Æ character, ash, derives its name from Old English æsc, “ash tree”. The character was part of the Old English alphabet, in which it symbolized the same /æ/ sound as it does in Norwegian today. It inherited its name from the Anglo-Saxon runic symbol for the same sound (which doesn’t look much like an ash tree to me):The derivation of the Æ character’s shape is pretty obvious—a sound somewhere between A and E, symbolized by mashing the two letters together in a ligature. In English, it still turns up occasionally as a typographical choice in words of Latin or Greek origin. That used to be fairly common, but in modern English it’s generally done in order to present an appearance of being well-established, if not positively antique:
The Ø character most commonly symbolizes the sound /ø/. In the Germanic languages that sound came about via a vowel shift called umlaut, or i-mutation—the round back vowel associated with the letter O strayed forward and upward in the mouth into the vicinity associated with E and I. That combination could have been symbolized by mashing two letters together in a ligature again: Œ. (And indeed, if a Dane or Norwegian can’t find a Ø on a foreign keyboard, they’ll render it as OE.) But it seems the letters were superimposed instead, though there’s debate about whether the slanting cross bar of Ø started life as a vertical I or the horizontal central arm of an E. However it came about, the Danes were already using it during the Middle Ages, and passed it on to Norway, Iceland and the Faeroes.
The Å character is another letter combination—an A with a little O written directly above it. The hybrid symbol was created because a long “ah” sound in Old Norse, written as AA or Á, underwent a mutation to become more like an “oh” sound in its descendant Scandinavian languages. Despite the sound shift, the Icelanders continued to use Á and the Danes to use AA, but the Swedes felt it was worth noting that this particular A now sounded like an O, and so added the little circle.
Here’s one of its first appearances, in the Gustav Vasa Bible of 1541:
Not only can you see the little o modifying the a, but there are examples of a little e modifying both a and o, too, like this:
Those e modifications are doing the job, in Swedish, that is done by Æ and Ø in Danish and Norwegian—symbolizing the umlaut vowel shift in the sounds of A and O that I described above. It was a common typographical convention, used in German, too. And (you’re probably ahead of me here), after the little e’s had been worn down by a few centuries of manuscript writing, they mutated into the double-dot accents we call umlauts today—producing the Ä and Ö that Sweden uses instead of Æ and Ø.
But back to Å as a substitute for AA which sounded like O. The Swedes kept this letter to themselves for centuries. The Norwegians adopted it only in 1917, and the Danes as late as 1948. So the Norse King Haakon I of Norway is now known as Håkon. But Haakon VII, a Dane who acceded to the Norwegian throne in 1905, retained the traditional spelling of his name until his death in 1957.* And that’s common—given names may use old or new spelling; family names tend to stick with the old spelling. Place names have generally shifted to the newer spelling, but there have been pockets of resistance from people who prefer the old style. Here are three examples of the spelling of the name of the second-largest town in Denmark:
Aarhus in the 1922 Times Atlas, Århus in the 1986 Times Atlas, Aarhus again on the VisitAarhus website in 2019. This isn’t purely based on nostalgia—the decision was also driven by the absence of accented character options in internet domain names, as well as consideration for potential tourists searching the internet using a non-Scandinavian keyboard.
I’ll finish by mentioning that Å is the only abbreviation for a basic unit of measurement (that I know of) which uses something other than the 26 letters of the standard Latin alphabet.† It’s the symbol for the ångström unit, a metric measure of length, equal to 10-10 m. It’s not part of the International System of Units, in which it is defined as 0.1 nm, but it still shows up occasionally. It’s named for the physicist Anders Ångström. (Who, if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll immediately be able to identify as Swedish, just from the letters of his name.)
* Haakon’s name was (as you’ll realize) pronounced something like HAWK-uhn, but English speakers tended to pronounce it HACK-on. When Haakon VII was in exile in Britain during the Second World War, there’s a story of how he turned up at the BBC to make a radio broadcast aimed at Norway. When asked for his name at reception he replied simply, “Haakon,” (you get to do that when you’re a king) only to find himself addressed as “Mr Hawkins” thereafter.
† Of course, there’s the μ prefix used in SI units, denoting a millionth part of the base unit, but it’s not in itself a unit of measurement. (Using μ on its own, to symbolize a “micron”, was abolished from the SI units in 1967.)