How Do You Pronounce “Ye”?

Many of us have encountered “ye” in old documents. Of course, we have all seen tourist shops labeled as “ye olde” something-or-other. How many of us know how to pronounce that?

For years, I assumed it was pronounced as it was written. I would pronounce it as “Yee Old.” Perhaps a more correct way to write it is with a long e: . I was a bit surprised later to learn that I had been wrong.

What looks like a “y” is a written character deriving from the old English letter, “thorn,” representing the “th” sound. No, it is not the letter “y,” it is the letter thorn. The thorn was commonly used in written English in the Middle Ages and for some time after. That explains why we see it on old documents and even in modern written sentences that imitate historical writing. Other than these cases, the thorn has now almost disappeared.

The thorn originally appeared to be written a bit different than the letter y as it had a descender. In fact, it looked more like a lower case “p” on top of a lower case “b” than a “y.” It typically looked like this: Þ.

This was before the days of printed books when all documents were written by hand. The exact shape varied from one scribe to the next. Depending upon the scribe, the second letter was often written above the thorn, as in . Reprints of the 1611 edition of the King James Version of the Bible always show “ye” written as:

By the mid-15th century almost all scribes stopped using the descender, and the thorn has since been written in an identical manner as the modern letter “y.”

This shows the “thorn” in both upper and lower case, in serif and sans serif fonts.

While the Middle English thorn is now written exactly the same as a modern letter y, it always was pronounced with a voiced “th” as in “this.” In other words, several hundred years ago the word that was written as “ye” always was pronounced as “the,” exactly the same as it is today. An educated person of 1611 would always pronounce  as “the” although today we might spell it as “thee” when referring to a person, as in “thee of little faith.”)

Wikipedia has a rather detailed description of all this at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorn_(letter)

So what killed the thorn? According to at least one source, it was the printing press. Here’s a simple but plausible explanation from http://www.h2g2.com/approved_entry/A2922077:

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 was used in several languages besides English but has since been replaced by other letters in all languages except Icelandic, where it is still used.

So, how do you pronounce the following?

Answer: “The Old Pizza Parlor”

20 Comments

Thanks for the education, Dick. I had heard of “thorn” before but never really looked into it. By the way, as you can see I can now leave a reply on your website. Don’t know why I couldn’t when you first went to this server, but all is well now.

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Eeegads (zounds?)! Think of all the businesses, especially in this country, that call themselves “Ye” this, that and the other. The quaintness of title for the shop(pe), or otherwise business, in question is now succumbing to the nondescript “the”. It won’t be pretty…

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Thanks Dick for yet another informative article. Your links are also appreciated.

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Þe write ye most interesting articles.

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I saw something on TV yesterday about the origin of English words not being English at all but foreign. Ye was one of the words that was included in this show. I already knew about the thorn from studying old English writing in documents and told my daughter that these people who produced the show did not know what they were talking about and that it was not even pronounced as Ye but as The. I cannot wait til she wakes up so I can show her your article!

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In our area of the country, I’ve learned that businesses that use “Ye” and “Olde” on their signs are invariably much more expensive than those that settle for simply “The” and “Old”.

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I seem to be able to leave a comment now, too. I couldn’t before.

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And of course, “ye” (written with a thorn) must not be confused with “ye” (originally, the second person plural personal pronoun in the nominative case). This pronoun was originally spelled “ge” and pronounced with a “y” rather than a “th.” Old English was every bit as convoluted and illogical as modern English!

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    Ah! Is that where the southern US “y’all” comes from? So much nicer than 2d person plural in my local dialect (“youse guys”).

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    No need to look to the (admittedly correct) y’all of our south. In Ireland, ”ye” is to this day the second person plural. You’ll hear it everywhere there and from youngsters as well as the aged.

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I assume “ye” is still “ye” in phrases such as “Hear ye, Hear ye!”.

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    Listen up youse guys. Didn’t “Hear ye” used to be “Oyez” (pronounced “Oi-yay”) from the Latin “Audi,” as brought to England by way of the Normans (“Ecoutez,” pronounced “Ay-coo-tay”). Oy veh!

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I stumbled onto this a few years ago when I was trying to spell a word for a visitor from the Netherlands. When I said “T”, She asked, “Which one”. That started me on the road that led thorn. Thanks for a great article.

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The thorn was used certainly up to 1875, as I have a receipt for a chest bought by my gt-gt-grandfather in that year, in South Wales, showing ‘ye’ – and this from a common-or-garden furniture shop, not a faux-antique trader.

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I should question Grla’s pronuciation. I believe that it is proper for a town crier to call “oyez” sounding the final consonant, given that the word is Anglo-Norman rather than modern French. Likewise, commissions of oyer and terminer were correctly pronounced as if the expression were modern English rather than as in modern French.

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The transition from thorn and edh (or eth, if you prefer) to “th” and yogh to “g” or “gh” started well before printing. It appears to mostly be a result of the Norman alphabet lacking those letters. There were many other changes as Old English became Middle English. For example the “e” in “olde” would have been pronounced in Old English, whereas later it only indicates that the preceding vowel has what’s generally called a “long” sound (e.g., “home”).

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Slightly tangentially I was pointed to this wonderful exampler of English accents the other day: http://youtu.be/-8mzWkuOxz8

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How can you make such a little word sound so big.
I am Irish, live in Ireland, use the word ‘ye’
all the time – I know how it sounds to me, to us…….

A bit confused now – and if anyone wants to discuss my words with me, please look at my website http://www.from-ireland.net (online since 2001)

Dr. Jane Lyons – Ireland

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And thorn has it´s origins in norse Futhark runes.

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So the band called The The,is then Ye Ye? I say get your ya ya’s out then.

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