or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, April 30, 2005

Antiquities, Part 3

Sunday's talk of "ye" brought a related matter to mind. How many times have you seen "Ye Olde Tobacco Shoppe" and the like? And when you hear it pronounced, isn't it usually "Yee Oldie Tobacco Shoppie"?

All wrong, you won't be surprised to hear.

The "ye" isn't the word we discussed a couple of days ago, an archaic form of "you". It's actually "the". Yes, really. A much older form of English used a runic character now obsolete called the thorn: it represented the dental fricative I talked about here, and it looked a bit like the letter "y". As it slowly faded from use, typesetters replaced it with the letter "y" from their fonts as a matter of convenience. Eventually, even that convention died out as the more literal digraph "th-" came into use. So whenever you see "ye" where you'd expect to see "the", it really is "the"--and it's even pronounced the same.

Now, as for the rest of the pronunciation: it's true that English once had "-e" suffixed to all manner of words. This wasn't for ornamentation: since spelling was originally a literal representation of how a word was pronounced, we know that those terminal sounds were also pronounced, but as a schwa, not a long "-e". If you had seen that sign above a tobacconist's shop in Chaucer's time, it would have been pronounced "The Old-uh Tobacco Shop-uh". But this pronunciation had died out by the 19th century; the spelling was a mere artifact.