Useless Knowledge Transmission: The Letter Thorn

I like learning. I like it a lot. I like stuffing my head full of knowledge, both useful and useless, as much and as often as possible. This is so when that one-in-a-million chance comes along and I appear on Jeopardy, Alex Trebek will read the clue, “This rubbery, orange-colored ball is what someone in Indiana might throw through a basketball ring,” and I will respond, “Um . . . what is a hockey puck?”

My response will be followed by Alex Trebek staring at the floor, shaking his head slowly in sad resignation. I may like learning, but “learning sports” hasn’t happened yet.

But I do like history. I like languages. And I like the history of languages. I’ve stuffed my head rather full of linguistic knowledge, both useful and useless, and it’s high time I share some of it with you. Mostly because: 1) I will never be on Jeopardy and 2) I have no idea when these facts are going to start falling out of my head.

Part One: Digraphs

Today’s topic: thorn. No, not those pointy things that make handling roses dangerous. We’re talking about the letter thorn. Never heard of it? Well, then this is your lucky day. It’s time for this blog’s first Useless Knowledge Transmission. (Stick with me for the mind-blowing reveal at the end of the post.)

When we (as native English speakers) see the letters T and H next to each other, we stick our tongue out slightly, place it firmly below our upper front teeth, and blow air out. (You’re doing it now, aren’t you? The person in the cube next to you is watching, you know.)

You will also notice that we execute none of these oral gymnastics when we say either letter alone. Try saying “two” or “hat” and compare it to “this” or “that.” (Go ahead, it’s okay. Everyone is still staring at you.)

This is because “Th” is a single sound represented by two different symbols (or “glyphs”). The technical word for this literary phenomenon is “digraph” which comes from the Latin words “dig” meaning “literary” and “raph” meaning “phenomenon.” Other examples of digraphs are “ph”, “ng”, or my personal favorite “xq.” Okay, that last one isn’t real, but it should be. I want it to be pronounced like “spl.” My contribution will make a real xqash in the field of linguistics.

Anyway, the ancient Romans didn’t have a single letter in their entire alphabet to represent the Greek letter theta:

Θ

When a native Greek speaker sees that symbol, he or she will stick his or her tongue out slightly, place it firmly below the upper front teeth, and . . . well, you get the idea. When a Greek did that in front of a Roman, the Roman would be all like, “Waaaaa?” And when that Roman had to write down what he just heard, he decided, for whatever reason, “T and H oughta do it!” (Why we don’t write TEETH simply as TEEΘ is beyond me. I mean, if you’re going to borrow a sound, why not borrow the whole dang letter to go with it?)

Part Two: Runes

Now this is where my story starts to get interesting. Any modern-day fantasy buff is familiar with those strange shapes called runes. It’s what you carve into stone to make your audience say, “Ahhh, this is where the dwarves live.” It’s what Disney does in Frozen to hint at the setting of their Nordic story:

runic screenshot from Disney's Frozen

Man, runes alone could easily be the topic of an entire series of blog posts here, if I’m left unsupervised. However, for this post, we’re only interested in the one they call thorn:

Þ

There’s a definite link between the Roman and Runic alphabets. Letters like F, R, H, I, and T look strikingly similar between the two. But there are many key differences too, like thorn, where the Early Rune Guys decided the Greeks had it right when they created a single letter to represent Th.

Part Three: Abbreviations

Fortunately the thorn didn’t settle down forever in the runic alphabet. Among other places, it found its way into Old English. Why? Because all the cool letters were doing it back then. “Check me out!” the letter would say. “I’m in somebody else’s alphabet now.” And you know what else is cool? Abbreviations. Humans are in such a hurry to get from Point A to Point B that they come up with all sorts of ways to shorten the trip. Why waste all that time writing “Mister” when “Mr” will do just fine?

The need for some abbreviations are obvious: it’s much easier to type i18n than “internationalization” even if the uninitiated have no idea what you’re talking about. But other abbreviations seem to be completely gratuitous. Honestly, was “road” so long that we needed to shorten it to “rd”?

For me, the worst case of this unnecessary shortening happened in Middle English when those Middle English people found the need to abbreviate the, this, and that. Seriously. But it gets worse. Keep in mind that in Middle English, they had merrily adopted thorn into their alphabet. So these words were already pretty damn short: Þe, Þis, Þat.

The abbreviated forms used superscripts and dropped unnecessary vowels. So the, this, and that were actually written like Þe, Þs, and Þt.

Even better, while all this was going on, the letter thorn slowly changed shape:

Evolution of the letter thorn

Hang on! We’re almost there!

Part Four: The Whole Point of All This

By the time Early Modern English came around, those Early Modern English calligraphers wrote the word “the” (using the now-evolved thorn digraph) like this:

example of early modern English 'the'

And by the time we were type-setting this abbreviation for print, it looked like this:

ye

So the next time you’re hobbling about town and you hear someone read the sign “Ye Olde Sweet Shoppe” out loud as “YEE old sweet shop” you can kindly point out to them, “Excuse me, but that’s pronounced THE old sweet shop.” Then perform your best “dismayed Alex Trebek” impersonation and point them toward this helpful blog post.

Oh, and don’t get me started on how “Ye Olde Anything” is just a modern construct that never appeared in the so-called Olde Times.

8 Comments for “Useless Knowledge Transmission: The Letter Thorn”

says:

I remember when you were taking etymology in jr. high or maybe it was high school by then – you’ve always been fascinated with language!

And me, after taking spanish for 8 years, can only say “Pincha la cerveza fria!” from the restaurant days when I would bring up cold beer for the kitchen staff once it was cleaned for the night!

Charlie

says:

It was definitely high school. Learned my first Latin and Greek. Definitely one of my most favorite classes ever.

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