The energy of Dr. Johnson must have been heroic--had to have been. In addition to all of his other work, he sat down and wrote a dictionary--the first of its kind for the English language: A Dictionary of the English Language, which was printed in 1755.
I've collected what he had to say about the letters of the alphabet, which is in itself a small and remarkable thing of sweep and brevity. He sites the "labial" P, the "canine "R", the unhappy hissing of S, the "note of aspiration" in H, and so on, in a forceful march to recording the language. His book is a work of high beauty.
All of the material below comes from the JohnsonDictionaryOnline site, here.
~ A ~
A, The first letter of the European alphabets, has, in the English language, three different sounds, which may be termed the broad, open, and slender.
The broad sound resembling that of the German a is found, in many of our monosyllables, as all, wall, malt, falt; in which a is pronounced as au in cause, or aw in law. Many of these words were anciently written with au, as sault, waulk; which happens to be still retained in fault. This
was probably the ancient sound of the Saxons, since it is almost uniformly preserved in the rustic pronunciation, and the Northern dialects, as maun for man, haund for hand.
A open, not unlike the a of the Italians, is found in father, rather, and more obscurely in fancy, fast, &c.
A slender or close, is the peculiar a of the English language, resembling the sound of the French e masculine, or diphthong ai in païs, or perhaps a middle sound between them, or between the a and e; to this the Arabic a is said nearly to approach. Of this sound we have examples in the words, place, face, waste, and all those that terminate in ation; as, relation, nation, generation.
A is short, as, glass, grass; or long, as, glaze, graze: it is marked long, generally, by an e final, plane, or by an i added, as, plain.
~ B ~
B, The second letter of the English alphabet, is pronounced as in most other European languages, by pressing the whole length of the lips together, and forcing them open with a strong breath. It has a near affinity with the other labial letters, and is confounded by the Germans with P, and by the Gascons with V; from which an epigrammatist remarks, that bibere and vivere are in Gascony the same. The Spaniards, in most words, use B or V indifferently.
~ C ~
C, The third letter of the alphabet, has two sounds; one like k, as, call, clock, craft, coal, companion, cuneiform; the other as s, as, Cæsar, cessation, cinder. It sounds like k before a, o, u, or a consonant; and like s, before e, i, and y.
~ D ~
D, Is a consonant nearly approaching in sound to T, but formed by a stronger appulse of the tongue to the upper part of the mouth. The sound of D in English is uniform, and it is never mute.
~ E ~
E, Has two sounds; long, as scêne, and short, as men. E is the most frequent vowel in the English language; for it not only is used like the rest in the beginning or end of
words, but has the peculiar quality of lengthening the foregoing vowel, as căn, cāne; măn, māne; găp, gāpe; glăd, glāde; brĕd, brēde; chĭn, chīne; whĭp, wīpe; thĭn, thīne; nŏd, nōde; tŭn, tūne; plŭm, plūme. Yet it sometimes occurs final, where yet the foregoing vowel is not lengthened; as gŏne, knowlĕdge, gĭve. Anciently almost every word ended with e; as for can, canne; for year, yeare; for great, greate; for need, neede; for flock, flocke. It is probable that this e final had at first a soft sound, like the female e of the French; and that afterwards it was in poetry either mute or vocal, as the verse required, 'till at last it became universally silent.
Ea has the sound of e long: the e is commonly lengthened rather by the immediate addition of a than by the apposition of e to the end of the word; as mĕn, mēan; fĕll, fēal; mĕt, mēat; nĕt,
~ F ~
F, A consonant generally reckoned by authors, and admitted by Scaliger, among the semi-vowels, and according to that opinion distinguished in the enumeration of the alphabet by a name beginning with a vowel, yet has so far the nature of a mute, that it is easily pronounced
before a liquid in the same syllable. It has in English an invariable sound, formed by compression of the whole lips and a forcible breath. Its kindred letter is V, which, in the Islandick alphabet, is only distinguished from it by a point in the body of the letter.
~ G ~
G has two sounds, one from the Greek Γ, and the Latin, which is called that of the hard G,
because it is formed by a pressure somewhat hard of the forepart of the tongue against the upper gum. This sound G retains before a, o, u, l, r; as, gate, go, gull. The other sound, called that of the soft G, esembles that of J, and is commonly, though not always, found before
e, i; as, gem, gibbet. Before u, at the end of a word, g is commonly melted away; as in the French, from which these words are commonly derived: thus, for benign, malign, condign, we pronounce benine, maline, condine. It is often silent in the middle of words before h; as, might. The Saxon G, ʒ, seems to have had generally the sound y consonant; whence gate is by rusticks still pronounced yate.
~ H ~
H Is in English, as in other languages, a note of aspiration, sounded only by a strong emission of the breath, without any conformation of the organs of speech, and is therefore by many grammarians accounted no letter. The h in English is scarcely ever mute at the beginning of a word, or where it immediately precedes a vowel; as house, behaviour: where it is followed by a consonant it has no sound, according to the present pronunciation: but anciently, as now in Scotland, it made the syllable guttural; as right, bought.
~ I/J ~
I, Is in English considered both as a vowel and consonant; though, since the vowel and consonant differ in their form as well as sound, they may be more properly accounted two letters.
I vowel has a long sound, as fine, thine, which is usually marked by an e final; and a short sound, as fin, thin. Prefixed to e it makes a diphthong of the same sound with the soft i, or
double e, ee: thus field, yield, are spoken as feeld, yeeld; except friend, which is spoken frend. Subjoined to a or e it makes them long, as fail, neigh; and to o makes a mingled sound, which approaches more nearly to the true notion of a diphthong, or sound composed of the sounds of two vowels, than any other combination of vowels in the English tongue, as oil, coin. The sound of i before another i, and at the end of a word, is always expressed by y.
J consonant has invariably the same sound with that of g in
giant; as jade, jet, jilt, jolt, just.
~ K ~
K. A letter borrowed by the English from the Greek alphabet. It has before all the vowels one invariable sound: as, keen, ken, kill; but is not much in use, except after c at the end of
words: as, knock, clock, crack, back, brick, stick, pluck, check, which were written anciently with e final: as, clocke, checke, tricke. It is also in use between a vowel and the silent e final: as, cloke, broke, brake, pike, duke, eke. It likewise ends a word after a diphthong: as, look, break, shook, leek. The English never use c at the end of a word. K is silent in the presentpronunciation before n: as, knife, knee, knell.
~ L ~
L, a liquid consonant, which preserves always the same sound in English. In the Saxon it was aspirated a hlaf, loaf; hlœfdiʒ, lady.
At the end of a monosyllable it is always doubled; as, shall; still; full, except after a diphthong; as, fail; feel; veal; cool. In a word of more syllables it is written single; as, channel; canal; tendril. It is sometimes put before e, and sounded feebly after it; as bible; title.
~ M ~
M Has, in English, one unvaried sound, by compression of the lips; as, mine, tame, camp: it is never mute.
~ N ~
N, A semivowel, has in English an invariable sound; as, no, name, net; it is sometimes after m almost lost; as, condemn, contemn.
~ O ~
O Has in English a long sound; as, drone, groan, stone, alone, cloke, broke, coal, droll; or short, got, knot, shot, prong, long. It is usually denoted long by a servile a subjoined; as, moan, or by e at the end of the syllable; as, bone: when these vowels are not appended, it is generally short, except before ll; as, droll, scroll, and even then sometimes short; as, loll.
~ P ~
P Is a labial consonant, formed by a slight compression of the anterior part of the lips; as, pull, pelt. It is confounded by the Germans and Welsh with b: it has an uniform sound: it is sometimes mute before t; as, accompt, receipt; but the mute p is in modern orthography commonly omitted.
~ Q ~
Q, Is a consonant borrowed from the Latin or French, for which, though q is commonly placed in the Saxon alphabet, the Saxons generally used cƿ, cw; as cƿellan or cwellan, to quell:
qu is, in English, pronounced as by the Italians and Spaniards cw; as quail, quench, except quoit, which is spoken, according to the manner of the French, coit: the name of this letter is cue, from queue, French, tail; its form being that of an O with a tail.
~ R ~
R, Is called the canine letter, because it is uttered with some resemblance to the growl or snarl of a cur: it has one constant sound in English, such as it has in other languages; as red, rose,
more, muriatick: in words derived from the Greek, it is followed by an h, rhapsody: r is never mute, unless the second r may be accounted mute, where two rr are used; as myrrh.
~ S ~
S, Has in English the same hissing sound as in
other languages, and unhappily prevails in so many of our words that it produces
in the ear of a foreigner a continued sibilation.
In the beginning of words it has invariably its natural and genuine sound: in the middle it is sometimes uttered with a stronger appulse of the tongue to the palate, like z; as rose, roseate, rosy, osier, nosel, resident, busy, business. It sometimes keeps its natural sound; as loose,
designation; for which I know not whether any rules can be given.
In the end of monosyllables it is sometimes s, as in this; and sometimes z, as in as, has; and generally where es stands in verbs for eth, as gives. It seems to be established as a rule,
that no noun singular should end with s single: therefore in words written with diphthongs, and naturally long, an e is nevertheless added at the end, as goose, house; and where the syllable is short the s is doubled, and was once sse, as ass, anciently asse; wilderness, anciently wildernesse; distress, anciently distresse.
~ T ~
T, A consonant, which, at the beginning and end of words, has always the same sound nearly approaching to the d; but before an i, when followed by a vowel, has the sound of an obscure
s: as, nation, salvation, except when s precedes t: as, Christian, question.
~ U/V ~
V, Has two powers, expressed in modern English by two characters, V consonant and U vowel, which ought to be considered as two letters; but as they were long confounded while the two uses were annexed to one form, the old custom still continues to be followed.
U, the vowel, has two sounds; one clear, expressed at other times by eu, as obtuse; the other close, and approaching to the Italian u, or English oo, as obtund.
V, the consonant, has a sound nearly approaching to those of b and f. With b it is by the Spaniards and Gascons always confounded, and in the Runick alphabet is expressed by the same character with f, distinguished only by a diacritical point. Its sound in English is uniform. It is never mute.
~ W ~
W, Is a letter of which the form is not to be found in the alphabets of the learned languages; though it is not improbable that by our w is expressed the sound of the Roman v, and the
Eolick f. Both the form and sound are excluded from the languages derived from the Latin.
W is sometimes improperly used in diphthongs as a vowel, for u, view; strew: the sound of w consonant is uniform.
~ X ~
X is a letter, which, though found in Saxon words, begins no word in the English language.
~ Y ~
Y, At the beginning of words, is a consonant; at the end, and when it follows a consonant, is a vowel, and has the sound of i. It is used at the end of words, and whenever two ii's would
come together; and in words derived from the Greek, to express the v. Y was much used by the Saxons, whence y is found for i in the old English writers.
~ Z ~
Z, Is found in the Saxon alphabets, set down by Grammarians, but is read in no word originally Teutonick: its sound is uniformly that of an hard S.