After some time away and following a sometimes challenging year of words, the
Wanborough Wordsmith (a name bestowed by a school friend) has returned with a monthly series of matters logophilic.
To start us off, a quick romp through the tale of Thorn.
The tale of Thorn is a sad one seeing our hero (Thorn) move from accepted friend to exiled stranger. Once as well known as any letter of the alphabet, it is now lost from the sanitised Greek alphabet you're reading at present.
Any school child will tell you we have 26 letters in our alphabet, but this is a fairly
recent fact.. Until the middle ages we had at least ten more letters now just dim memories for wordsmiths and symbologists.
Let me introduce you to one of those lost letters, thorn, producing a 'th' sound.
Thorn is one of the older letters ever to have formed part of our alphabet. It dates back to Anglo Saxon times and the birth of Old or Middle English as a spoken and written language. It is also present in early Norse and Icelandic languages both of which have modern equivalents.
The triangular form of the rune shown above dates from Anglo Saxon times.
While we do have a few angular letters such as V and W or K, they are rare and tend to originate outside the Greek alphabet. They can also be relatively modern additions or variations, but that's for another day. Let's just say as a rule we tend to prefer curvy letters in modern times.
So when introduced into Old or Middle English, Thorn took on a variety of less angular and more rounded forms.
You'll notice that some of these forms look very much like the letter P although sounding nothing at all like it.
This was the first potential problem for the letter thorn and when a little later the letter Y started to muscle in on thorn's action it slowly disappeared from written forms. So exactly how did P and Y see off thorn?
Anglo Saxons wrote very little down, their history is was largely spoken so we have to start the detective work with middle English scholastic or religious texts. If you wondered why some letters have tails such as q or y this will help there too.
This shows a clear example of a printed abbreviation of the word 'the' using the lost letter thorn looking very much like a Y or a P. The thorn produces the th sound with the superscript e telling the reader to complete the word as 'the'
This is a clearer example of a printed abbreviation of the word 'the' using the lost letter thorn. Note the small tail leaning back on the thorn to distinguish it from a P. You would also have seen a thorn sign with a superscript t (as in the text above) which meant the reader should finish the th sound with a t producing the modern English word 'that'
To distinguish the letter thorn further from the letter P a curvy lower tail evolved as shown in the original text above and the letter Y was made to have a straight down stroke clearly producing three different letters.
The problem really started with the printing presses. Many religious texts originated
from the protestant tradition in Germany which didn't have the letter thorn. Printers and scholars would see a thorn with a fancy extended tail and assumed this was a form of the letter Y which had been illuminated in scripts in this manner for some time.
As a result thorn with a small e above gradually transformed into a large Y with an e above and later still into the word Ye,
A little earlier, I said that the letter thorn has been lost from the language. As a formal letter in the alphabet, that's certainly true. However, it still lingers on in any quaint English trap de tourism
Next time you see any sign announcing 'Ye Olde' anything, you're not looking at a Y you're looking at the last remaining letter thorn.
Of course, thorn produces the sound th in any event, so this sign is really saying The Old Cheshire Cheese. The reason for the e on olde relates to the time when English words had genders. but I'll save that for another time. Next time you see something like this, do say hello to Thorn.