The Emergence of 'Ye,' Long Version; Or, Why Those Ye Olde English Pizza Shoppe Signs Bother the Hell out of Me
Back in the day
, the inhabitants of Southern England
spoke what we now call Old English
, a language that bears more resemblance to German
or Middle High Gothic
than to the English
we speak today, or even the language
spoke. Among its many features, Old English had, like Modern English
, several 'th' phonemes
. Unlike Modern English, its alphabet
had two characters devoted to the sounds, in addition to containing 't' and 'h':
ð (eth): originaly sounded as 'th' in the Modern English 'weather,' but, over time, drifted in sound towards þ. 'ð' is found almost exclusively within words, the common exception being 'ða,' which translates to 'there' or 'then.' Take the following example, from Cædmon's Hymn:
ða middangeard moncynnes Weard
then middle-earth mankind's Guardian,
ece Drihten æfter teode
eternal Lord, afterwards made.
þ (thorn): sounds as the 'th' in the Modern English 'thin.' Found both within and at the beginning of words. Take lines 2570-2 of Beowulf, with a literal translation by John Porter:
Scyld wel gebearg
Shield well protected
life on lice læssan hwile
life and limb for lesser while
mærum þeodne, þonne his myne sohte,
famed chieftain, than his mind desired,
Also back in the day, writings were found in manuscripts
rather than in books
. These manuscripts were rare, beautiful, and precious
, equal parts text and work of art. The inks were often shot through with precious metals like silver
, the animal skin parchment
incredibly expensive, and the calligraphy
fantastic. The tradition of having a large, decorative capital letter start each section of a text comes from these manuscripts.
of these manuscripts were often monks
, who made quite a lot of money in exchange for their time and eyesight. Contrary to popular assumption, many of these monks were no more literate than the peasantry
(or, often, the king
). They reproduced characters they often had no ability to interpret. It bears mention that Old English scribes took quite a few liberties with spelling, or were following rules that are hard for us to discern. Consequently, a look at the Cotton Manuscript
(http://www.jagular.com/beowulf/manuscript-a129r-367-515.jpg), the surviving copy of Beowulf, doesn't help us suss out the rules for using ð as opposed to þ inside a word.
'þ' is a very popular initial consonant
in Old English. Consequently, it often received lots of attention from the scribe, who felt compelled to do something interesting
with the character. Over many years, the top corner of the protrusion became disconnected from the vertical line on 'þ.' The 'þ' slowly began to resemble a lowercase mu (μ, for those whose browsers can display it), and, afterwards, a 'y.' 'Ye' comes from nothing more glamorous than 'the.'
So any time you see 'Ye Olde English Antique Parlor,' 'Ye Olde English Pizza Shoppe,' or 'Ye Olde English Dry Cleaners,' you can be sure of two things:
- That it means 'The Olde English Antique Parlor,' 'The Olde English Pizza Shoppe,' or 'The Olde English Dry Cleaners'; and
- That's an attempt to reproduce Middle English, for crying out loud. I swear, some people have no respect for dead, archaic versions of their own tongue.
Abrams, et al. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. 1. 7th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.
Porter, John. Beowulf: Text and Translation. London: King's College.