October 30, 2023

Words of the Month - Ye Olde TH

         The phrase “ye olde” (pronounced yee oldee) now denotes consciously old-fashioned things, especially those that are particularly cheesy, artificially quaint, and inclined toward trapping ignorant tourists.  Most people are under the vague impression that the phrase is genuine, if perhaps overused, and indeed it is — sort of.  Let’s clear the biggest issue out of the way at once: “ye olde” was never pronounced yee oldee.  During the time when this was a legitimate spelling, it was pronounced “the old,” just as the words have come to us today.  The -e on olde simply represented the fact that spelling was not yet standardized, and other variants including auld, alde, awld, ole and old were just as common.  Today we’re going to spend more time looking at the spelling of the sound that we now spell th.
        The -th- sound (technically a dental fricative, either voiceless /θ/ as in thumb, or voiced /ð/ as in them) is relatively rare in world languages, and while Old English and Greek have it, Latin and most other European languages do not.  Greek spelled the sound with the theta θ, and when Latin borrowed Greek words that included it, they usually spelled it th, but most often pronounced it as a simple t.  That’s come down in the pronunciation of Romance languages.  Meanwhile, Old Norse and Old English used the letter thorn þ to represent the unvoiced variant, and eth ð to represent the voiced version.  So far, so good.  But of course it wasn’t long before Latin collided with Old English…
        Old English occasionally spelled things with th on the Roman model, and when the Norman French turned Old English into Middle English, they also brought their own version of spelling.  Indeed, they drove poor eth to extinction by around 1250.  Thorn, however, was made of sterner stuff and lasted quite a bit longer.  It was especially inclined to persist in the very common words such as þat, þis, and þe.  After all, it’s shorter and quicker to write.  (If you’re paying attention, you should be thinking, “But shouldn’t those words be spelled with eth rather than thorn?”  And you’d be right, except that a) eth was extinct by now and b) English was never as precise about spelling as Old Norse!)  So far, so good (for thorn, if not for eth).  But of course then Gutenberg had to go and invent that printing press…
        The printing press reached England around 1475, but although we always talk about the press, it wouldn’t have done much good without the moveable type that went with it.  Most of the type in England was originally imported from the continent and therefore didn’t include pieces for the letter thorn, which wasn’t in use where the type was being made.  What to do about the missing letter?  Sometimes printers used y in place of þ because the shape was somewhat similar, and that’s how we end up with ye olde.  It’s simply an orthographic variant of þe olde and was always intended to be pronounced as such.  If you look at a couple examples of fifteenth century orthography, you can see the similarity between the two.  I’ve circled eths in blue, and y’s in green.  In the first example, handwritten around 1440, you can see that the two letters are practically indistinguishable.  In the second example, printed in 1478, the y’s look just like the handwriting, while the thorns are a little different.  (In both, you can see the habit of writing the e above the thorn as a sort of abbreviation for the.)  While Y clearly made a reasonable substitute for thorn, however, its use was not universal, and plenty of people just fell back on th instead.  As printing enforced its standardization on English, th became the winning orthographic solution, which is why today we look at “ye olde” and think it should be pronounced yee.
        As a footnote, however, English spelling still had a lot of confusion to get through before reaching its current state.  In the fifteenth century some overzealous scholars added H to the T’s of words that they thought came from Greek TH origins, such as author and Thames, while other words were borrowed from Romance languages that followed the Latin model of spelling Greek words with th while pronouncing them with t, such as thyme and Thomas.  (For more about the influence of overenthusiastic Latin-loving spelling reformers, see prior post on The Fault in Our Salmon.)  And those are just some of the reasons for the strange variety of spelling and pronunciation of words with th.
        Personally, I really miss eth and thorn and wish we still had them in the English alphabet, along with something new for ch and sh, too!

[Pictures: Ye Olde Mixer-Upper, wood-cut by John Held Jr, 1935 (Image from AbeBooks);

Detail from The Book of Margery Kempe manuscript by Margery Kempe, 1436-48 (Image from The Margery Kempe Society);

Detail from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, printed by William Caxton, 1478 (Image from Worcester Cathedral);

The Book Printer, wood block print by Jost Amman from Panoplia omnium illiberalium, 1568 (Image from Internet Archive).]


Charlotte (MotherOwl) said...

Thank you for this explanation. From Icelandic I knew Thorn and Eth, and I knew 'ye' was supposed ot be 'the', I just never came to connect the dots inside my head. You made my morning 100 % better with this.

Pax said...

Thanks for spelling this out so clearly. My olde English manuscript reading includes plenty of thorns, but eths have eluded me: no longer in use in the early 17th century.