The thorny question of the þ

Over on the BBC’s now archived H2G2 site (“Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” – an early internet attempt to, well, create a H2G2), there’s an interesting post suggesting that the Y in “Ye Olde Shoppe” should be pronounced as “th” – removing the olde worlde feel surrounding the original, in a fascinating short history of a minor part of the English language:

A Medieval Scribe’s Dilemma

Medieval English thus contained a variety of signs for the sound ‘th’ – the digraph ‘TH’, the thorn , and the eth (orthok ). Scribes ended up using a mixture of these, although some tried to make a distinction between those used for a voiced ‘th’ sound and the signs used for a voiceless ‘th’. As a result, reading medieval texts today can be enormously confusing. Is that a ‘y’? Is it a ‘p’? Or a ‘th’? The problem is compounded by the inclusion of yet another runic sign which made it into Medieval English – the wen7, a symbol that looks very like a thorn , except that the triangular portion sits even higher, giving it a strong look of an angular ‘p’.

Even readers at the time often found it difficult to know precisely what the text was saying, given the combination of Latin characters and the remnants from the runic alphabet. Heaven help the reader whose ability to transcribe the various letters and runes (and all their forms) was poor and couldn’t work out the meaning from the context! The problem was made worse by the occasional juxtaposition of Latin and Old English texts on the same page, and by the shorthand and unique methods employed by individual scribes in transcribing the letters

The Font of Wisdom

The thorn was particularly popular as a sign for ‘th’ in Medieval English, but with the advent of printing came a problem. There was no thorn sign in the printing fonts, as they were usually cast outside of England. So, since the sign for thorn slightly resembled the lower-case ‘y’, that’s what was substituted.

The thorn continued to be used, but printing caused its eventual demise from the English alphabet. As mentioned earlier, lingering proof of its existence hangs on in the outmoded ‘Ye’.


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