Linguists Hate This One Weird Trick!

Chalkboard Thorn.png

Word-nerd rage is no joke.

Seriously, they do. That’s because it’s wrong.

What is it, you ask? Look no further than your average semi-accurate Renaissance faire. Ah yes, there it is, right between the oversized turkey leg stand and the fairy-windchime store—”Ye Olde Dresse Shoppe.” It’s a pretty standard way to express that you’re trying to recreate a “historical” sensibility.

Basically, this old-timey usage of “ye” is a complete lie. You can say, “Do ye want to go into that shoppe?” but not “Hark at ye olde nonnsense spellinge in that shoppe window!” It’s a perfectly good pronoun, but “ye” has never been an article in English.

How did “ye olde” get to be so popular if it’s so wrong? To answer, we have to go back nearly a thousand years to the later days of Old English (which is not Shakespearean). During this time, English nouns were losing their gender as different languages butted heads and confused everyone, and the definite articles that went with them followed suit.

Eventually, all those articles merged into one, spelled “Þe” with a letter called a thorn, a holdover from the Anglo-Saxon runic alphabet. Today we spell this word “the,” but that spelling only started to catch on after a few centuries, and lack of standardized spelling meant that many Middle English writers continued to use the thorn.

Because humans are lazy and carpal tunnel syndrome is painful, scribes came up with various shorthand tricks over the centuries, and one of the most popular was to write “Þe” with the “e” above the thorn. (An older form used a horizontal bar on the thorn.)

Written The 1

This system worked nicely until the printing press came along, at which point it became something of a thorny issue. By this point, the thorn had been replaced by the modern “th” in most cases, but abbreviated cases of “the” often still used the thorn-and-small-e combo. English printers imported typefaces from the continent, which inconveniently didn’t include Anglo-Saxon runes, so something had to be done.

Luckily, over time many scribes had started writing thorns that looked a lot like the letter Y, so rather than adding the thorn to their typeface sets, printers just used a Y for the relatively rare thorn occurrences. (See above re: humans are lazy.)

Written The 2.png

Without the context of the thorn, what we have here is clearly “ye.” Early readers of printed English did have that context and knew perfectly well how it was pronounced, but it was inevitable that a time would come when the youngsters would no longer appreciate the glorious history of their language.

That day came, possibly on the same day someone realized there was money in exploiting our romantic images of weird historical spellings, and “ye olde” was born.

The First Philadelphia Mint, nefariously advancing the cause of etymological ignorance since 1792.

Now you know why “ye olde” is never right (also, “old” had a lot of spellings back in the day, but that wasn’t one of the common ones), and you’ll never see another “olde shoppe” without thinking about it. It’s the kind of nerdy knowledge that gives you kind of a smug feeling, even if you never mention it, which you probably won’t unless you want to sound like a snob or you have nerdy friends. (Or unless you have a blog!)

I guess at least you can at least feel quietly superior, if you like yat sort of ying.

[I don’t want to overwhelm you with linguistics notes on this one—there’s a lot of interesting stuff about how articles like “the” develop, which I may want to write about at some point. I do invite you to fall down the rabbit-hole of Wiktionary for some of these words!]



One thought on “Linguists Hate This One Weird Trick!

  1. Pingback: Double Featural: Tengwar and Hangul | Something of the Marvelous

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