I heard a talking head on a news show the other day attempt to mockingly refer to a pretentious-sounding shop near his house as “ye olde pastry shop,” pronouncing “ye” as “yee.” That just drives me crazy, which prompts this post.
Over the years, English has evolved, to the delight of nelogophiles (I’m not sure that’s a word, but if it were, it’d mean “people who love new words) and the scorn of those of us who’d kind of like it if people who live 200 years from now could understand what the heck we’re writing now. (What better way to control a child’s perspective on his/her culture’s past than by changing the language so much that he/she has to have some basic text from, say, 1812, explained?) One of the things that we’ve lost over the years are a couple of letters “eth” (Ð uppercase ,ð lowercase) and “thorn” (Þ uppercase, þ lowercase) which once provided a one-letter way to write what we currently write as “th.” (There were two letters because “th” actually does double-duty. Say “them” and “thistle” aloud and you’ll end up saying two very different initial sounds.)
When we had those letters, they showed up in abbreviations, and given how often we use the word “the,” it’s no surprise that one appeared — þe — that is basically just a thorn with a little “e” roosting on the edge of it’s rounded part. As the thorn and the eth fell out of use in the 1300s or so, people seeing old signs wouldn’t have a clue about what that abbreviation meant, and as it appeared in business signs, it’d be pretty clear that “þe” was intended to mean “the,” but the abbreviation looked like “ye,” and so the association stuck. But no one ever pronounced the word with the “y” sound.
Nope, I’m not a linguist, but I’ll tell you where I started learning this: Iceland. Icelandic and Old English share a common heritage. Of course, in the past thousand years, Old English has changed massively to become the English that we speak, and I doubt that any modern speaker of English could understand a paragraph of Old English without some training. In Iceland, however, they’ve worked to maintain understandability of their language across the centuries, and I’m told that a modern Icelander can read and understand texts written seven hundred years ago. Anyway, an outgrowth of that is that Icelandic still uses the thorn and the eth, as I noticed when I started visiting there. That led to a bit of looking-into about these two bygone letters, and the þe abbreviation.