How Do You Pronounce “Ye”?

 

Many of us have encountered “ye” in old documents. Of course, we have all seen tourists 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.” I was a bit surprised later to learn that I had been wrong. Instead, The words above are correctly pronounced, “The Old English.”

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.

Yes, the letter thorn was one of the 27 (or more) letters of the English alphabet back in the Middle Ages. The thorn has now almost disappeared from use except in the Icelandic language where it is still used often.

Before the days of printed books when all documents were written by hand, the exact shape of the thorn varied from one scribe to the next. Depending upon the scribe, the thorn often looked like a modern lower case “y” and the second letter was often written above or above and to the right of the thorn, as in:

ý

 

Here is an example of a hand-written thorn, perhaps as a scribe would have written it with a quill pen:

The thorn was commonly used in hand-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.

Reprints of the 1611 edition of the King James Version of the Bible always show “ye” written as shown above. 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.”

When typeset in modern books, the letter “thorn” looks like this:

This shows upper and lower case in both serif and sans serif fonts.

While the Middle English thorn is now written exactly the same as a modern letter y, it still is pronounced with a voiced “th” as in “this” or “the.” 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 Old English.”

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 imported from the European continent], as they were usually cast outside of England. So, since the sign for thorn slightly resembled the hand-written 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’.”

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.” (No, the pronunciation of “yee” does not appear anywhere in the above image.)

17 Comments

I encountered (while indexing) possibly the last usage of the thorn in records from Boston Massachusetts in 1805

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I wonder if it still had the long e sound? Once in a while you hear the pronounced thee. Also in the Bible would it be pronounced Thee, as in the “familiar” you, thee. “Know ye not…” Know thee not…?

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    The “ye” in the Bible is a subject pronoun, the plural of “thou.” It is spelled and pronounced as “yee” and not with a thorn. In English, as in many modern languages, there later developed two forms of what we call “you” now:
    1) “thou” and “thee” (subject & object forms of the singular or familiar pronoun)
    2) “ye” and “you” (subject and object forms of the plural or formal pronoun).
    Usage has shifted around according to dialect ever since.
    These are not related to the definite article “the” and were not spelled with a thorn nor pronounced with one.
    This wikipedia article explains it:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thou
    It goes into way more detail than most readers might want, but especially note the chart with the heading “Personal pronouns in Early Modern English”
    Sarah

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My last encounter with the thorn was a receipt from Wales in 1875 – surprisingly late – that for some reason my gt-gt-grandad kept. I still have it. And as was a legal requirement in UK, it was signed over a postage stamp [I believe this was a legal requirement until 1971, as a Stamp Tax]. Just as a response to the comment above, ‘the’ is pronounced ‘thee’ before a vowel – thuh banaba but thee apple. The word written ‘thee’ is of course an old form of what we would use a singular ‘you’ for today.

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Genealogists also need to be aware of the old letter yogh, ȝ. It was pronounced as a guttural ‘gh’ sound. This article on Scottish Handwriting.com explains how it was used and how it evolved into ‘y’ or ‘z’ when printed: https://www.scottishhandwriting.com/cmLFyo.asp.

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    I cannot say that I have ever encountered this letter in my research which has been almost exclusive in colonial records for Virginia, but if only for future reference, it would be helpful to have a better idea than the article you reference as to what actual letters might be substituted by someone hearing a word/name, but not actually knowing the “proper” spelling.

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According to this article the first printing of the King James Bible in 1611 used a lower-case ‘y’ followed by a superscripted ‘e’, and that’s what you’ll typically see in English parish registers prior to 1813, when printed registers were introduced.
Thorn was not the only additional character in the medieval alphabet – there was also ‘edh’ and ‘yogh’, although only the latter persisted in the 16th century and so might be found in parish registers.
Another character that can cause confusion is the long ‘s’, which continued in use until the late 19th century.

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    I remember long ago reading that Ye is pronounced “the” but I don’t recall ever reading a detailed account about why this is so. Interesting!
    The one that is weirdest to read in old (American) books is the substitution of f for s in old texts (well, in the American English language; I’m not sure about other languages). In words that normally have both f and s in their spelling one must stop and figure out which is which when the typeset has f for all of them. It’s a novelty to see the elongated s in the US Constitution where it’s written Congrefs in modern typeset, but when f-for-s goes on page after page of f-for-s interspersed with an actual elongated typeset letter s at times it’s a bit tiresome. See:
    https://archive.org/details/historyofkingphi00math/page/n12/mode/2up
    One footnote in the text pertains to my maternal family, and one footnote pertains to my paternal family.
    KingPhilip’s War is (apparently) the most famous American war no one ever heard of. I only came across the historical info because of my genealogy research and its connection to my maternal and paternal ancestors. It was never mentioned in grade school or high school history classes (at least not in my schools).
    The cursive form of the elongated s I see all the time in Scandinavian records (all three countries) as an abbreviation for sen/sson after the father’s name – patronymic naming system – (transcribed as a lower-case s in modern records; d, dr, dtr for datter/dotter after the father’s first name in records and transcriptions), and sometimes in other parts of words or names with an elongated s, and that looks “normal” to me. In printed/typeset form in American texts where it’s always listed as a lower-case f for s…, not so much.

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There is yet another obsolete character, the name of which I have been UNABLE to determine as I have yet to see it included in any font set and experts in Old English I have asked could not identify as it seems it may have only been used in British North America, that I have encountered most often with the spelling of the word “parish”, but it can also be used with person, portion, and pursuit. As WordPress is NOT ALLOWING me to paste into this post any of the samples I have, I must describe it and the symbol still used today that most closely resembles it would be the ampersand, especially when used in &c (et cetera)

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And then there is the ash alphabetic character recently brought back into prominence by Elon Music and his wildly named son.
Æ

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    There is a Wikipedia entry for Æ: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%86
    If you want to hear how it’s pronounced, copy-paste it in the text box at this link, select Danish, Norwegian, or Swedish as the language, and click “Say It.”
    https://ttsdemo.com/
    You may have to select different names/voices to get it to come out correctly as some of the voices have several other garbled words. It is pronounced anywhere from a longish a to a short e sound in English.

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Southwing Fine Books May 14, 2020 at 12:52 am

Confusing! At school, in England, we were taught in no uncertain terms that this use was always pronounced with the soft (unvoiced) “th” of thick and thin. My dictionary of preference, Chambers, recognises only this pronunciation also. My Shorter Oxford goes into great length about how the usage was derived, then gives no pronunciation at all!—although there is, by implication, a suggestion that it was pronounced with the hard (voiced) pronunciation of this, that and the other. We have to consult thorn itself before we learn that it could be pronounced hard and soft. So Wikipedia is correct.
The Oxford English Dictionary distressingly acknowledges “Yee” as a “pseudo-archaic” pronunciation. Not a development I welcome at all. You can still hear the soft “th” in Northern England, Wales and possibly in dialect use elsewhere.
Stefan

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    Stefan – I’m wondering if the “soft “th” in Northern England, Wales” might be left over from the age of settlement of Vikings in some areas. The thorn [Þþ] is found at the beginning of names or words and has a hard T sound (see the full name of the Danish Queen Margrethe Alexandrine Þórhildur Ingrid, for instance), while the eth [Ðð] is found in the middle of words and does have a soft th sound (moðer = mother).
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eth
    I can make the eth sound, thanks to my Norwegian teacher, but I can’t adequately describe how to say it, except that the tongue is not completely pressed against one’s front teeth, not quite touching, so it comes out a kind of soft breathy th sound. They still use the thorn and eth in Iceland and the Faroe Islands today, and both were settled by Vikings.

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Why is there no REPLY to base of Bev Andersons comments? Anyway. In German script the first S of a double set was written with their script s which is similar to the f but with a backward base loop. always mistaken for an f. In words ending in ss or sometimes followed by a vowel, it looks similar to a italics B called an ess-zett. So every time you see a (usually a town name) GroB Varlingen it is Gross Varlingen. or PreuBen = Prussia. in old carvings notice any U was carved as a V. for ease of carving maybe.

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    Barb – Thanks for your reply.
    I have run across the German double ss – ß at times.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%9F
    Whether or not German or Latin spellings are used in the official church records in Norway, Sweden and Denmark (where I have done the most research for foreign records) seems to depend on where the priest/minister was educated (or even where his teacher was educated). e.g., Martin became Martinus in Latinized names. Erik became Erich in Germanicized names. In at least one church (where my ancestors are recorded) in America, French immigrants with Germanic names are recorded, and I was told the records were in a dialect of German (which dialect remains unknown). They were from northern Alsace right next to the German border.
    I’ve also seen that back-flip elongated cursive s mistaken for the forward loop of f in transcriptions. One needs to have a minor degree in etymology and cursive penmanship dealing with several languages to be a genealogist at times! I’m so old I can remember studying penmanship in earliest grade school, in fact. 😉 I genuinely pity our youngest descendants who can’t even read cursive! They will miss out on a great deal in reading old documents.
    Yes, very often V is used in place of U in very old spellings. W – double tvay in the Scandinavian alphabets, as well as many Germanic-based languages – is still pronounced with a V sound in most of Europe.
    One of the first things I learned how to do immediately after getting my first PC was to add keyboard layouts for various languages used by my ancestors so I could accommodate extra letters of the alphabet used in transcribing records for my ancestors – and I added Icelandic with the Old Norse thorn [Þþ] and eth [Ðð] since I have, oddly, encountered those a time or two.
    I have also read that runes are usually made with straight lines because they were easier to make with an axe while carving into wood or even rock (sandstone and limestone are rather soft, as rocky substances go); same goes for bumerker (they’re called house marks in Wikipedia, but that they were used for “house marks” is not strictly true. In at least Norway they were used as personal marks in a day and age when most people were illiterate except for the priests who were tasked with keeping the records. (In exchange for financial support for the churches, the priests kept the official records; however, the church had no say-so in the running of the government.)
    A bumerke could be carved into a wooden handle of a carpenter’s or farmer’s tool, for instance, or scratched into a metal tool, or the like, to show ownership. If called as a witness for a betrothal, the bumerke of a person was entered in the official church record book; the priest would write the name of the person below or beside the bumerke (I’ve run across this in several betrothal contracts in church records).. A bumerke is a personal logo, as it were, and could also be made into a signet ring to be used as a mark in sealing wax (think of old movies and a monarch’s Great Seal signet ring as a much larger version of a wealthy landowner’s or businessman’s signet ring). There were official bumerker registration books with the name of a person and his mark next to his name. Those registered marks were not to be duplicated by anyone else. After the person died his mark was never supposed to be used again. A similarly designed bumerke with something added might be used by a father and his son(s), but each had to be individualized. (I’ve only seen bumerker used for men, but I should imagine women could have used them, too.)
    Then there was the transition from cursive Gothic alphabet to the modern cursive alphabet, and abbreviations used in records going back at least four hundred years…. 😵 Oh, my!!! The amount of “necessary trivia knowledge” one must have to navigate, understand, and interpret or translate old documents from various countries can still amaze even me after more than half a century of doing genealogy research.

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Bev Anderson wrote: “the eth [Ðð] is found in the middle of words and does have a soft th sound (moðer = mother). …I can make the eth sound, thanks to my Norwegian teacher, but I can’t adequately describe how to say it, …”
Is it the same as the difference (in English) between mother or tithing and mythology or anthrax?

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John – For me there is no difference in the th sounds for the words you have cited (at least not in the American school system in which I was taught). Moðer and mother are pronounced differently.
The closest I can think of for the position of one’s tongue while pronouncing the [Ðð] eth sound would be in the word clothier. Because one’s tongue does not touch the top teeth, air escapes so it is a breathier sort of “thier” sound [thee-er in slo-mo sound] than the way most Americans pronounce the actual th in most English words. I’m going by the pronunciation my Norwegian teacher taught us nearly 40 years ago; he learned it in Norway as an American student who stayed there for years, then came back to America and taught Norwegian.
Caveat: Remember, there are uncounted numbers of regional spoken dialects, regional phonetic spellings of words for the languages that evolved from Old Norse, at least in the three Scandinavian countries. Experts tell us that modern Icelandic is the closest to Old Norse because their records go back some 1,200 years (as does their genealogy which is online only for Icelanders so young people don’t get involved with people who are too closely related) and the modern Icelandic language is basically the same as their earliest texts, and people there can still easily read the original texts. As an isolated island culture of less than a million people there was no real reason for the language to change all that much. Faroese is also an old Norse language that is also different from Icelandic, and both of those are different from modern Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish, and the latter three languages are not mutually intelligible with Icelandic and Faroese. See this language tree (or download the image):
https://www.ancient.eu/uploads/images/1028.png?v=1485680376
[BTW, Elfdalian which is spoken in only one small region of Sweden is almost extinct as a language. Scholars are trying to record it before the elders die, and their language with them.]

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