Date: Tue, 7 Dec 1993 10:03:00 +0100


Subject: More on Eth and thorn

From the keyboard of

Roger Vanderveen rvander[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE]

This is an idea of mine, and I'd like to get some opinions on it.

I believe that the letter thorn didn't die out all that early, but was still in

use up until the 18th century, and we still see its occasional use today. I am

referring to the way that the word "the" was spelled as "ye". In old scripts

the letter "y" in "ye" looks like a thorn, and eventually the "y" replaced the


Right. Do you actually mean thorn and not eth? Compare: Below is a

lowercase thorn, hex FE, 254 decimal in ISO 8859-1.




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Below is a lowercase Faroese-Icelandic lowercase eth, hex F0, 240 decimal

in ISO 8859-1:





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Below is an attempt at a script y of the type you probably are referring to

above (admittedly not a good one, but you can't expect miracles from 7-bit


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Looks more like eth than thorn to me...

Pronunciation could have been consistent with either spelling. The thorn sound

may not have been pronounced (compare modern English dialects which pronounce

"thee" as "ee"). But as the spelling using "y"/thorn died out in favor of

"th" (which was there all along), the "th" became no longer silent.

What think ye?


Aye, what think ye?

Dennis Preston states:

Worse yet, thoseof us who have a voiceless interdental in final position in

with would have been badly represented in the spelling w - i - eth .

The why not use w-i-thorn as a variant, just like colour-color etc.

(admittedly somewhat hypothetical, but since you mentioned it I couldn't



not forget what a boon to variation English spelling often is. What variety

would we select if we really wanted to phonemicize (since I assume nobody

wants to phoneticise) English spelling.

Yawl woodn wunt tuh use mahn, wood yuh?

Dennis Preston

YorkshireAccent on:

Naw, Uh'spawze nouhtt...

YorkshireAccent off

Robert Kelly (kelly[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE] points out:

one problem: the Y as grapheme equivalent of thorn lasted only in words

where eth was the sound wanted: Ye Olde Teashoppe, etc. As an earlier

respondent noted, in Middle English texts these letters are (I think) hope-

lessly interchangeable. Recall that thorn was still "productive" (as it

still is, i.e., show someone a made-up word with th- in it and they'll

pronounce it with a theta) and eth restricted to a very small lexicon, mostly

deictic words.

A small but very common lexicon, I'd say. The, this, that, they, their,

them are among the most common words in English (all variants), aren't


I'm guessing that the obsolescence of the sound eth made the

graphemic distinction less important.

Obsolescence??? See above. Nevertheless (never eth eless), the said

distinction must have been *considered to be* less important.

Then too, the snazzy new typefaces

coming in from Italy in the Renaissance had no eths and thorns, and we all

wanted to look like Aldus in those days. (Personally, I miss the yog letter,

looked like 3 you remember, and lingers as the z in Mackenzie and Dalziell,


the gh in laugh, the w in law, etc. A good sound we have to cross the Channel

to Holland to hear still. Even the Scots have lost it!


If you mean the initial sound in Groningen has been lost in Scots, how do

you then pronounce Loch Ness? Or maybe the sound was reintroduced by Gaelic

influence... Also, you could cross the Atlantic in a nor eth erly direction

and find it as an optional and alternative pronunciation to final hard G in

spoken Icelandic.

//Hans Vappula, Gothenburg Universities' Computing Centre, G|teborg, Sweden


Hans Vappula * guchw[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE] * hans.vappula[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE] ([AT SYMBOL GOES HERE] = at sign)