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:
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.)