Þornography

No, I have not decided to write a post about porn. If you look carefully at the first letter in the title, you will see that it is not a p “pee”. It is actually the letter þ or “thorn” which was used in Old English, but has since been dropped. It has the sound that is represented in Modern English by the digraph “th”, so the actual title of this post is “thornography”. I hope you can forgive me for the word play. I have mentioned that the alphabet we use in English was originally the alphabet used by the Romans to write Latin. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, this alphabet continued to be used as the various dialects of Latin spoken in the former provinces of the Empire slowly evolved into the romance languages like Spanish, Italian , or French. The Latin alphabet was carried North and East by Christian missionaries, and so the various Germanic and Celtic peoples used them to write their own languages. The Anglo-Saxons who spoke Old English were among the Germanic speakers. Naturally the speakers of the various languages adapted the letters of the Latin alphabet to suit the needs of their own languages. Letters were dropped or added or the sounds they represented changed. Some languages added diacritical marks such as the accents, circumflexes, dots or curls you may see when studying Spanish, French or some other language. The Latin alphabet originally had 23 letters, the 26 found in English and other European language minus J, U, and W. Before being introduced to the Latin alphabet, the Anglo-Saxons, like other Germanic peoples had used the runic alphabet. When they switched to the Latin alphabet, they added four letters to the alphabet and dropped K, Q, and Z for a total of 24 letters. Two of the added letters were taken from the runic alphabet and two were adapted Latin letters. The altered Latin letters were Æ or ash, which was pronounced something like between the vowels A and E, and Рor eth, which was a sound close to D, perhaps DH. The two letters taken from the runes were þ, thorn and Wynn Ƿ which was used for the W sound. The letter Œ or ethel was also used. There was also a letter Ȝ or Yogh which was simply the English form of G. Yogh was used after the Norman Conquest along with the Carolingian G with gradually replaced it. The letter þ was used in Old English and survived into Middle English, though by the fourteenth century it was being replaced by the digraph th. The Letter Wynn had out of use already to be replaced by W or double U (UU). Over time þ began to be indistinguishable from the letter Y in handwriting. By the time William Caxton introduced the printing press to England in 1476, þ was only used in a few common words like “the”, which people were unwilling to change the spelling. The printing press had been invented in Germany and Caxton was obliged to import the type fonts from Germany. Since the German language did not use þ, he substituted Y. Over time most people forgot about the letter þ and simply assumed the letter in old printed texts was Y. This is why you will often see something like, “Ye Olde Antique Shoppe” in fake Medieval signage. The “Ye” is supposed to be “The” but since the people who make such signs do not know about þ and “ye” is the archaic second person plural pronoun, “ye” just sounds old fashioned, which is the effect they are going for. þ was used by other Germanic languages, particularly in Scandinavia, but it fell out of use there too. The only living language that uses þ is Icelandic where it retains the pronunciation “th”. In order to write thorn, I had to download an Icelandic keyboard, before I discovered that it is one of the special characters on WordPress’s toolbar. Ð and Æ were also on the Icelandic keyboard but I had to cut and paste Ƿ, Ȝ and Œ. The Icelandic language seems to have retained much of the grammar and vocabulary of Old Norse, the language of the Vikings and modern Icelanders can still read the old sagas with only a little effort. þat is all I have to say about þe letters þat are no longer used in þe English language. It seems a shame þat we lost some letters. Perhaps I should start a movement to reintroduce þ into þe alphabet. Maybe not.

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3 Responses to “Þornography”

  1. aletifer Says:

    Þanks for such a þorough explanation! 😉

  2. It’s Greek to Me | David's Commonplace Book Says:

    […] “god cyning”= good king, but the grammar is very different and there are even some strange letters not used in Modern English. The text looks more like a dialect of German than the English we are […]

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