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Thorn - Missing Letter of the Alphabet

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The thorn , Þ þ , is one of the most fascinating of letters and, in a form unrecognisable to the untrained eye, is still used to convey 'olde-worlde' charm. Twee shop fronts may bear the legend 'Ye Olde Shoppe' in an attempt to recreate a feeling of the medieval, and inevitably the word spelled as 'Ye' will be pronounced by all as 'Yee'.

However, 'Ye Olde Shoppe' ought actually to be pronounced as 'The Old Shoppe', because the 'Y' derives from a printed form of the thorn.

A Fuþorc in the Road

The thorn is a letter which originally derived from a rune. This runic alphabet was called fuþorc1 after the sounds of its first six signs and was developed by Germanic peoples at least as early as the 2nd Century AD. Scholars are divided about the fuþorc's origin, but it's agreed that some of the signs in the runic alphabets are derived from Italic or Alpine letter forms and others are probably influenced by Latin and Greek letters.

Though and Through - the 'th' Sounds

The thorn represented a 'th' sound and it's now a moot point whether there was originally a distinction between voiced and unvoiced 'th' sounds, in terms of how they were represented. A voiced 'th' sound is that made in the word 'there'. You can hear the buzzing sound when you stress the 'th' sound. An unvoiced 'th' sound is that made in the word 'think'. It is breathier and does not buzz.

From Giants to Thorns

While several runic alphabets developed from the basic 24-character Elder fuþark, the one we call the Anglo-Saxon fuþorc was the most common. This is distinguished by nine extra characters,2 some altered forms and additional signs. These changes were mostly to accommodate the Old English language. This can be evidenced not only by runes found in the British Isles, but also in changed runic inscriptions in north-west Germany and northern Holland after the Anglo-Saxon invasions (5th Century AD).

The thorn first appeared as the name of a character in the Anglo-Saxon fuþorc, usurping a different name for the same sound and symbol in the Elder fuþark. In the Elder fuþark it was called the þurisaz, meaning 'giant'. This was the third sign in the Elder fuþark, and the thorn retained the same position in the Anglo-Saxon fuþorc.

While there were a few different fuþorcs formed from the basic Elder fuþark, the one we call the Anglo-Saxon Fuþorc was the most common. That which is codified as the Anglo-Saxon fuþorc is distinguished by nine extra characters,3 some altered forms and additional signs. All these changes bring us to a total of 33 runes in the Anglo-Saxon Fuþorc.

A Source-rich Language

The English language consists of a hotchpotch of source material combining to form one of the most agile and expressive languages in the world. While using a base of the Anglo-Saxon (Germanic) alphabets, it soon incorporated a great deal from other languages such as Latin, classical Greek (which itself incorporated much from ancient Semitic languages), and French (in two distinct waves).

Ð ð : The other form used in Medieval English to express the 'th' sound was the thok or eth (Ð ð ). It's believed that this form was created by Insular4 scribes crossing their d form.

The Romans appropriated quite a lot from the Greeks, but evidence suggests that they did not adopt the letter theta5 which was used by the Greeks to denote variant 'th' sounds. Instead, they expressed the 'th' sound by using the digraph6 'TH'.

A Medieval Scribe's Dilemma

Medieval English thus contained a variety of signs for the sound 'th' - the digraph 'TH', the thorn , and the eth (or thok ). Scribes ended up using a mixture of these, although some tried to make a distinction between those used for a voiced 'th' sound and the signs used for a voiceless 'th'. As a result, reading medieval texts today can be enormously confusing. Is that a 'y'? Is it a 'p'? Or a 'th'? The problem is compounded by the inclusion of yet another runic sign which made it into Medieval English - the wen7, a symbol that looks very like a thorn , except that the triangular portion sits even higher, giving it a strong look of an angular 'p'.

Even readers at the time often found it difficult to know precisely what the text was saying, given the combination of Latin characters and the remnants from the runic alphabet. Heaven help the reader whose ability to transcribe the various letters and runes (and all their forms) was poor and couldn't work out the meaning from the context! The problem was made worse by the occasional juxtaposition of Latin and Old English texts on the same page, and by the shorthand and unique methods employed by individual scribes in transcribing the letters

The Font of Wisdom

The thorn was particularly popular as a sign for 'th' in Medieval English, but with the advent of printing came a problem. There was no thorn sign in the printing fonts, as they were usually cast outside of England. So, since the sign for thorn slightly resembled the lower-case 'y', that's what was substituted.

The thorn continued to be used, but printing caused its eventual demise from the English alphabet. As mentioned earlier, lingering proof of its existence hangs on in the outmoded 'Ye'.

Our Thorny Past

Is the perseverance of this 'Ye' a thorn in the flesh? Of course, it is a marvellous relic of a runic alphabet no longer used, and reiterates the richness of the English language by reminding us of its fascinating history and various sources. But as the thorn 's legacy, the contrived and archaic 'Ye' should come with a little reminder that it's pronounced as 'The'.

1 The fuþorc is a runic alphabet which, in its most basic form (known as the Elder fuþark ), had 24 signs. The word fuþorc can be spelled (and pronounced) as futharc using our current alphabet.2Other, similar, runic alphabets had between five and nine runes added to the Elder fuþark form - depending on different linguistic needs of a language, the region, community trading and so on.3Other, similar, runic alphabets had five to nine runes added to the Elder fuþark form - depending on different linguistic needs of a language, the region, community trading and so on.4Insular writing - Irish and Anglo-Saxon writing like the Book of Kells. It is relatively easy to read and quite exquisite - a high point in handwriting.5They may have used it instead for the number 100, which in time became simplified into the C form with which Latin scholars are familiar.6A group of two letters representing one sound - eg, 'sh', 'ph', and 'th' as above.7The wen is believed to be an English dialectical variant of the rune name wyn, meaning 'joy'. It is pronounced as 'w', and was implemented in England after the Norman Conquest by the practice of using two of the letters 'u' or 'v' to symbolise the 'w' sound.

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