In between various projects the other night, Mark and I fortified ourselves with a soothing dose of British television, this time, an episode of Stephen Fry’s panel show QI. And wouldn’t you know it, but he had some very interesting historical trivia about the letter Þ—or this blog’s eponymous ‘Thorn,’ in English. Now, perhaps the linguists, book historians, typography buffs, and and Old English enthusiasts among you already knew this, but news to me: in Old English, the word “Ye,” as in ‘Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe above’ (not, for the record, ‘ye’ as in “Hear Ye, Hear Ye!”) was not pronounced with a ‘y’ sound, but rather as ‘th.’ This is because in the early years of the printing press, the letter Y was substituted for the letter Þ, which was part of English orthography at the time. Apparently, printing presses didn’t have Þ, so plucky printers simply substituted Y instead. But people understood that it was still pronounced with the ‘th’ sound.
You can watch Stephen Fry explain this rather eruditely, with humorous commentary, in the video below (the clip should be cued up, but if it isn’t for some reason, the ‘Ye’ clip starts at 36:53).