Languages are a funny bunch. They’re one of the defining characteristics of what it means to be human. They can be written, spoken, and/or signed. They help us make sense of the world around us and relate to one another.
One of the defining aspects of a language is standardization. And that makes sense. Without agreed upon rules and vocabulary, communication breaks down. But language itself is dynamic. Use and application changes. Travel and migration impact the everyday use of language and understanding.
That language is in a constant state of flux might seem surprising. After all, we are living in a time when people are surprised over pronouns in use for several centuries now. But it isn’t just the lexicon and slang that change. The alphabet itself is susceptible to the pressures of change. This is the story of one such change.
Now, I know you all have seen something Old English-reminiscent along the lines of the title of this post. Ye Olde Something Something. And you probably read and pronounce Ye as “yee,” after all, that’s a “y.” Well, it didn’t start off that way.
The Old English alphabet was quite a bit different from the modern English alphabet we know and love today. If you’ve ever seen anything written in actual Old English, you’ve probably been surprised at how little you’ve actually been able to read.
In particular we’re looking at the letter/s just under the T in the two columns on the left side. þ is a letter called thorn, and ð is called eth. The characters were largely used interchangeably but reflect voiced and unvoiced use of the “th” sound. In phonetics, we use θ (theta) and ð (still eth) to described them. Theta is unvoiced, as in the word “bath,” while eth is voiced, as in the word “these.” But if you saw the characters just casually hanging out in a sentence, it would get confusing real quick.
This stuff was just ineligible at some point. The shift began in the wake of the Norman Conquest of England, at which point the language started having a lot more Latin influence, as opposed to primarily Germanic. This impacted the alphabet as well, and translations of texts by monks of this time period began to be influenced by spelling conventions they were familiar with–namely old French and the Latin they were used to as well. As the monks and scholars in the successive generations were trained, they no longer had to work out how to transcribe these now-fading-into-obsolete spellings because they’d already been updated.
It was a slow process, with piecemeal changes happening in religious and academic texts slowly percolating out into the common spellings. It wasn’t until the 15th century that þ had really been largely worked out of the language. One tricky aspect, though, and really getting to the point of what I’m even going on about, is that even though this letter had been fading from English by the end of the 11th century, the “th” spelling as we’ve come to understand it didn’t really become common until sometime during the 14th century. That’s a good gap of time. And it created a bit of a problem.
You see, the Norman influence also extended to block printing presses. Namely that they didn’t include the þ. So they had to think of something. And someone, at some point, decided that Y looked close enough and so the “th” sound, previously written as “þ” was then to be represented with a “Y.” The funny thing is, though, that people of the time just understood the pronunciation of it. It wasn’t used like a y…it was understood to sound like þ.
But eventually (that late 14th/by the 15th century bit I went on about a couple paragraphs ago) the digraph “th” came to represent both θ and ð voicings of the previously þ character. But looking back in time at old texts and things, we recognize the Y as the modern letter, without a multi-purpose application. And so we pronounce it as a Y. But 800 years ago, it was understood to be “th.” It was both read and pronounced as such.
So, think about that for a bit, and how different our own language used to be and how words and letters we see every day can be informative of enormous events throughout history. And then, take your new knowledge of the old English “Y” and go reread the title of this post, it probably makes more sense now.