Ye Olde Englishe. A Thorny business, indeed…

Posted on 4 April 2011

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A rather artistic and thorny Thorn

I was at the British Library the other day, having a look at what turned out to be a rather interesting exhibition called ‘Evolving English‘.

On display were a nice range of old texts – including some of the earliest examples of written English.

They gave some ‘translations’ – showing how certain lines were meant to be read. But most people looked on as if the text were made of hieroglyphs. Unless I missed it – all that was needed was for them to share a few simple rules that would have enabled the visitor to read a lot more of the old texts by themselves.

One of the things I love seeing in old English texts are the letters history steadily banished – owing partly to the advent of printing, which we imported from the Dutch – and later from Germany and Italy – where no such letters were in use.

Letters such as:

  • wynn – Ƿ, ƿ – which used to be used where we often now use ‘w’;
  • short-s – ſ – replacing ‘s’ where not word-final;
  • ethÐ, ð – use to render the dental fricatives [ð, θ] which we normally use ‘th’ for now;

and eth‘s partner-in-crime, and, my favourite:

  • thorn – Þ, þ – also used to represent dental fricatives – particularly the voiceless one [θ].

Thorn comes ultimately from this Rune:  

Have a look at this text, The Tale of Beowulf, which is an Old English epic poem set in Scandinavia, dating from somewhere between the 8th-11th centuries. Beowulf derives from bee-wolf, meaning a bee-hunter, in turn meaning a bear.

Þa ƿæs gesẏne þæt se ſið ne ðah þã ðe unriht[e]
inne gehydde ƿræce under ƿealle ƿeard
ær of-sloh feara sũ ne þa ſio fæhð ge-
ƿearð geƿrecen ƿrað-lice ƿundur hƿar.
þoñ eorl ellen róf ende ge-fere. lif-ge
[ſc]eafta þoñ leng ne mæg mon mid hiſ
[mag]ũ medu-self buan ſƿa ƿæs bio ƿulfe

Check out the opening line – it has all of them! Look at that gorgeous capital thorn in the top left.

Þa ƿæs gesẏne þæt se ſið ne ðah þã ðe unriht[e]

>> Tha was gesyne that se sith ne thah than the unrihte

>>> Then it was seen that throve not the way to him unrightly…

So many interesting features in here: German speakers might spot the past participle of ‘see’ getting a ge- prefix (gesyne), modern day ‘seen’; ƿrað-lice > wrath-like (wrathfully) – shows how suffixing something with -like gave us our adverbs, which today end in -ly – e.g. brightly, cleverly, deftly.

But let’s stick with the archaic letters. See more of the Tale of Beowulf in William Morris and A. J. Wyatt’s translation.

Eventually, these letters – wynn (ƿ), eth (ð) and thorn (þ) – fell out of use. Wynn and thorn lost their distinctiveness and were too similar to ‘p’ in handwritten texts, so they were replaced: ƿ > uu > w, and þ and ð > th.

In fact, along with ðþ is still used in Modern Icelandic, which is the only living language to retain its use, where it comes as the language’s 30th letter in the alphabet.

It might well date back to the 13th century, but it's still The Olde Cheshire Cheese

The definite article in English, the, used to be written with a thorn – þe – and this outlived thorn’s wider usage (it can be found in the King James Version of the Bible used in this way). Where it remained it often looked like Ye when handwritten, as thorn slowly lost its ascender þ > p.

So, that’s right – when you’re looking a fake old English sign, such Ye Olde Englishe Shoppe, you’re not looking at ‘ye’ (which, coincidentally, was a word in its own right – the nominative form of ‘you’, pronounced yee) – you’re looking at a thorn – albeit a disguised one – and should be read as ‘the’.

It’s a giant of a letter – literally in fact, as the Anglo-Saxons called it thurs (“giant”) – so let’s give thorn the respect it undoubtedly coolly deserves.

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