Ye Old Mispronunciation: The Long Forgotten Letter “Thorn”


image of letter thorn

This is what the letter thorn looked like.

We’ve all seen those kitschy, old-timey business signs like “Ye Old Curiosity Shop,” or “Ye Old Hat Shop,” or “Ye Old Beer Stand.” Shockingly, this whole time we have been mispronouncing these names. In these cases, ye is not pronounced with a y sound, as we are used to hearing. That ye is actually pronounced the. Yes, that the.

Here’s how the story starts. A long, long time ago when English was still Old English, the letter people used to represent the th sound was represented by a letter called “thorn.” (The thorn looked like a letter p with the hump part scooted down to the middle.) During these times, communicating with the written letter thorn was no problem, as written communication consisted of using pen and ink. You could write any letter you wanted.

The printing press is what led to this ye confusion and ultimately the demise of thorn. This is because early printing fonts had to be imported from Germany and Italy, where there was no sign for thorn. It was the thinking then that the letter y most closely resembled the thorn, so printers substituted it with a y. And that’s why we have those cheesy “Ye Old” shop signs now.

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However, you may also recognize ye as being an archaic way to say you. If we are looking through “Ye Old” history, this is the authentic path for ye pronounced with a traditional y sound. All of those signs are actually saying “You Old”  such and such, which sounds like a really lame put-down. You old curiosity shop! Ouch.

Erin Servais is the founder of Dot and Dash, LLC, an author-services company focusing on women writers and offering a range of editing, coaching, and social media packages.

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