Those of us who go weak at the knees when we see signs of the Ye-Olde-Tea-Shoppe kind just have to bite our tongue and put it all down to yoghs and thorns.

Before the Latin-alphabetic-conquest, Germanic languages were written in a runic alphabet. I grew up thinking runes were those scratches on the edge of a stick or old stone: and of course they often were — but more important than that physical manifestation was the fact that they made up a coherent alphabet! Anglo-Saxon “futhorc” (named after the first six letters of its alphabet — just as ours is after the first two in the Greek alphabet)   is the most familiar runic alphabet to an English-speaking audience. There’s the thorn in third place; yogh is also in the top line under the guise of X. Yogh migrated to the form resembling the number 3 in Middle English.









A few letters from Anglo-Saxon times didn’t make the jump across to the Latin alphabet. Notable among these are yogh (ȝ) and thorn (Þ). In rough terms yogh represented the -ch sound in the Scottish word loch. It used to be written at the start of the word ȝear (year) which would occasionally be transcribed as “gear”. An Anglo-Saxon speaking about that twelve-month span of time would begin with this sort of throat-clearing sound.

In the case of the word year, yogh did move to y, but generally it would turn into -ch, -gh, -g, -z, or -x. The name Menzies (which in Scotland we pronounce Ming-iss) is an example of ȝ being replaced by z. The culprit in “Ye olde” is the thorn, a straightforward -th sound as in, temptingly, “the”. However “ye” as a sort of antique-ish form of “the” shouldn’t be conflated with “ye” the personal pronoun, plural of you, as in “hear ye!”. This “ye” (“y’all” in the southern USA, or “yous yins” or indeed just “ye” in Scotland) would have been spelled with a yogh, ȝe.

However over the years the shape of the thorn does seem to have moved towards that of y — see the illustration below of the Wycliffe Bible. This can surely be the only justification for thinking that our ancestors ever said (well, wrote) “ye” instead of “the”, because if you’d taken off from the thorn in it’s original shape, Þ, wouldn’t you have been more likely to have ended up with Pee Olde Tea Shoppe?

The website Bellaria from Classics for all comes up with an explanation of why we got lots of “ye”s in the King James Version. Their idea just doesn’t sound right to me. If you go to the link, scroll down to the bottom. On the way down you can work through an interesting series of examples of different translations of the Bible, moving from Greek and Latin, through a very German-looking English, and up to the 1611 King James translation. The Bellaria idea is:

“If you go back to the Wycliffe manuscript and look carefully at ‘In þe bigynyng was þe word . . . .’, you will see that þ (‘thorn’, = th) has changed its shape to Ƿ. But while this was happening, ‘th’ was becoming more common and starting to win the day.

“This is where the fun starts. The original printers of the KJV preferred not to use ‘th’ for the word ‘the’ because it would take up too much space, and opted for Ƿe instead. Unfortunately early printing presses came from Germany and Italy and did not possess such a letter. So in the very first texts of the Bible, the London printers replaced it with ‘y’. Result? ‘Ye’, meaning and pronounced ‘the’ at the time, but in time becoming the ‘ye’ we know and love as in ‘ye olde village shoppe’.”

Here is the Wycliffe illustration, followed by Bellaria‘s illustration of the KJV.

Of course it wasn’t the press which was the defining feature in this argument: any press will be happy to make an impression on anything you place below it — a grape, a piece of type, a recusant’s thumb. It’s the metal type that makes the difference. If the printers of the King James Bible really wanted a thorn of þ or of Ƿ shape what was to stop them obtaining one? 1611 isn’t exactly prehistoric times in the story of British printing, and there must have been any number of die sinkers and punch cutters available to create a mould for a thorn if they really needed one.

To me the unconvincing bit in Bellaria‘s story is that if you look at that 1611 edition of the KJV, there’s nary a Y in place of þ or Ƿ. All the “the”s are perfectly happily rendered as t-h-e, just as if the thorn had never stuck in printer’s flesh. In fact I believe that the only “ye”s in the KJV are in fact of the plural personal pronoun sort, where we are addressing a group. “Ye stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye”. (Acts 7:51 for example.) All the “the”s in the KJV are in fact, and have always been, rendered as “the”. So the printers of the King James Bible didn’t suppress the thorn; they actually got rid of yogh in a different “ye”: a switch which may well have occurred many years earlier.

And isn’t that thorn, Ƿ, in Wycliffe getting dangerously close to wynn, ƿ, another lost Anglo-Saxon letter, which stood in for the -w sound, which was not one the Romans used? Maybe there’s a story in that too.

See Mental Floss for an article about 12 letters which didn’t make the alphabet.

Anther literary connection is to J. R. R. Tolkien, a friend of all medievalia. He introduced runes into The Hobbit. Thorin’s map has lots of them: