Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The thorn in Ye Olde Pemberley is gone

I promised someone I would do another language post, and since the Great Vowel Shift garnered so much attention, I thought it not a bad idea. I will refrain, however, from going off on Grimm's law and the rise of the intervocalic fricative, however sorely I am tempted.

My subject today is one that has caused me to jump out of my seat, twice, and scream excitedly at Stephen Fry, on the set of QI, through the screen, because I knew the answer, and I was so wretched at not being on the show at the time... not that I have ever been on the show, but, you know, I have aspirations. And those of you who know me well understand how unbearable it is for me to be thwarted in demonstrating my awkward trivia knowledge.

The question related to the word "Ye" as in "Ye Olde Tea House," or other such "Ye Olde" things. The question was how to pronounce it and why. I started jumping up and down screaming, "it's a thorn! It's a thorn!" Then Stephen Fry, in an infuriatingly calm voice, explained how the "Y" was not a "Y" but a thorn.
The thorn is a lovely little old English letter which looks kind of like the Greek letter phi, in the lower-case. It is pronounced as an apico-dental fricative, like the "th" at the start of "the." It can also be voiceless, like in "Thursday." It was pretty much out of use by Jane Austen's time, but she would have known how to pronounce it I expect, as her family was very literary and educated.

This charming letter did not make it into the printing press, and was represented instead either by a "th" or by a "Y." But it was always pronounced the same. "Ye Olde" is and has always been pronounced "The Olde" and was never anything else. I give you license to correct anyone who says otherwise.

As an aside, you will notice that only grammatical words and no lexical words begin with the voiced apico-dental fricative. Feel free to display your own geeky knowledge by explaining in the comments section what I mean by that.

Melanie Kerr is the author of Follies Past: a Prequel to Pride and Prejudice

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