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Ben there, done that for Aug. 28, 2022

Ye thorn in our language

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Would it surprise you to find out that language is interesting to me? The combination of sounds and written symbols we use to convey ideas and concepts to one another is a source of endless fascination. Language’s intricate web of meaning is constantly shifting and evolving with our culture. This process brings new elements in, and in turn, discards others. Today, let’s give attention to one such long abandoned feature of the English language, the “thorn.”

English is a bit of a bizarre tongue, taking influence from a wide range of other languages. Originating as a western Germanic language, the “thorn” was brought to the British Isles by Anglo-Saxon migrants from the fifth to seventh centuries. Isolated from similar languages derived mainland Europe by the English Channel, the language began to evolve on its own. Over time early English began to displace the Celtic languages that had been dominant in the British Isles. For roughly 200 years, English made use of the runic alphabet with as many as 33 characters.

Irish missionaries who were fluent in Latin introduced the use of the Latin alphabet to write English. Slowly this method won out, replacing the older runic scripts. However, two runic characters remained in use while the rest of the old characters were systematically phased out.

One of these two runic letters was the “thorn.” The letter appeared similar to a lowercase b with an extended line downwards, like this: þ. This character represented the same sound as the modern digraph “th.” Thus, to write the word “the” in these older versions of English one would simply add the letter “e” after the “thorn.” While writing remained largely done by hand, having these unique characters in addition to the Latin alphabet presented no issue. However, this would change with the invention of movable type.

In mainland Europe, starting in the late 1400s, new methods of industrial printing were emerging after the breakthrough invention of the Gutenberg printing press. These faster, more modern ways of copying written text proliferated in many of the neighboring countries. English printers imported most of the early sets of moveable type from foundries in The Netherlands and Denmark. The Dutch and the Danes both used the Latin alphabet which made their letters compatible with English. However, these European languages didn’t use the “thorn”, which was the only runic letter left in common use by the 1500s. Thus, printers looked for a substitute character among the Latin letters and eventually settled on the letter “y.” Combining this substitute character with “e” to make “the” created the infamous “ye.” So, the correct pronunciation of this strange word is just “the.” 

This “y” remained in use for a couple of hundred years. The first printing of the King James Bible used this y substitute method, but this was changed in subsequent editions. Today, the use of “ye” is classified as pseudo-archaic; used to make things appear older than they really are. However, there is one place where the “thorn” remains in common use: Iceland. The Icelandic language is the only one in the world to retain the use of this special letter in its modern form. “Thorn” is the 30th character of their 32-letter alphabet which mixes Latin characters with runic ones.

So, the next time you see a sign evoking a bit of medieval flare using “ye,” you will know where this quirky feature originated from and the fascinating way our language has evolved over the years. In addition to this, I hope you will remember how to pronounce it ye correct way.

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