Bring Back the Yogh and the Thorn


ThornYe Olde Shoppe. We’ve all seen the signs like this. Ever wonder why it says “ye” instead of “the”? Me, too, at least way back then. I’ve known the answer a long time now from decades of reading about English, about typography, Chaucer, and about Middle English orthography. Spoiler alert: It was pronounced “the.” Not “ye.”

Thorn evolvedThe “ye” was actually spelled “(thorn)e” — thorn was a letter in the Old and Middle English alphabets that stood for “th.” It started out looking like a lowercase “p” as in the images at the top, but as time went on, it devolved into something that looked more like a “y” (on the left) in German printing (which lacked a thorn in its character set) which got passed back into early Modern English. When printing arrived in England, Caxton used the “y” form of thorn in his books, hence the “ye” in “the olde shoppe…”

Although Latin characters are the basis for most European languages, Latin (itself derived from earlier Etruscan) had only 23 characters in its alphabet, missing several used in other languages including the Germanic and Norse tongues that loaned so many words and sounds to English. To convey these missing sounds and letters, medieval scribes used characters and runes from other alphabets. While Latin was the official language of Christendom, which spread throughout Europe, it had some hiccups in translation.

Latin had no J, U, or W (or any lowercase form, which was also invented in medieval times), so these came from elsewhere into English. I was used for J; J wasn’t even a separate letter until Gian Giorgio Trissino used it in a book in 1524, but it didn’t appear in English books until 1633, and still wasn’t commonly used until around the early 19th century. So there was no Jesus, Joseph, Jehovah, Joshua, or any other character whose name started with a J in the original bibles (Latin or Greek). Those names are the result of translation into later English.

W had been represented in 7th and 8th century Germanic texts as a digraph (VV or uu), but didn’t make its way into English until the 13th century. It still took a century to become standard. Before then, the sound was represented by the rune wynn. U was originally just a stylistic variation on the letter v, used in the middle or end of a word, while the pointed v was used as the first character. Although u was accepted as a separate character as early as 1386, it was only in its lowercase form. The uppercase U was not used in English until the 17th century. 

EthAnother lost symbol for the was the Irish character eth, which also represented ‘th’ but was a slightly longer sound than thorn (try saying thing versus this to hear the difference).

YoghThe letter “y” wasn’t used back in Chaucer’s day, and instead scribes would have used a yogh, looking a bit like the numeral 3,  spelling our “ye” as 3e.  But yogh was flexible. Yogh, which derives from the Hebrew character gimel, was used for more than one letter, depending a bit on context and pronunciation: it could be g, z, w, or y, or sometimes an x or the allophone gh (as in night or knight, although these were not silent as they are now) and the guttural ch in loch or Bach. Yogh suffered from its closeness to the Arabic symbol for number three. Arabic numerals were gaining popularity in Britain around the end of the 14th  and early 15th centuries, and the two symbols conflicted.

By Chaucer’s day, by the way, the Latin I and Y had lost their distinctiveness as sounds in English.

Another lost letter is wynn, which was used for the “w” sound centuries before the letter was finally adopted into English. Several of these lost characters stayed around in English writing until Chaucerian times, but after the Norman invasion of 1066, French became the official language, and they disappeared from court documents and records. 

Thorn, eth, wynn, and yogh were incorporated into early English because they represented existing sounds not in Latin, but the long s was a typographic affectation for the letter s: style rather than pronunciation, so it had somewhat greater longevity. By Caxton’s time most of these symbols and letters had vanished from printed works, in large part because the printing press and its moveable type were imported from Europe where they didn’t have any of these symbols, so Caxton and others had to make changes to suit the typefaces they had.

Before modern English, before the printing press helped standardize  the alphabet and typography, there were many characters like the thorn in use. Most didn’t survive the technological evolution, although some, like the “long s” which was a symbol for a lowercase s, hung on for centuries. The long s started to vanish around 1790, and by 1824 had become merely a memory. I recently encountered the long s when reading the journal of Robert Juet in a facsimile of Samuel Purchas’s 1625 book, Purchase His Pilgrimmes. You can also see it in facsimiles of Isaac Walton’s classic book on fishing. There isn’t a long s in the WordPress symbol set, but it looked a bit like ƒ. So you’d read fiƒhing instead of fishing… Walton encouraging readers to  ƒing the fiƒing ƒong…, well, okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration: the long s had some fusty rules as to where and when it could be used.

Mental Floss ran a fun article called “12 Letters That Didn’t Make the Alphabet” (which properly should have been titled Twelve, if the site had a proper headline editor). But the title is incorrect: several of the letters and symbols were not distinct characters, but rather written and typographic forms that stood in for others. Some characters are digraphs that represent a sound or a combination of letters (sometimes those that cannot be adequately represented by the writing system, such as the Welsh “ll”).

There are similar articles about the “lost letters” of the alphabet here and here, and of course, the video at the top.

In modern typography, some of these symbols in the Mentalfloss article were represented by a ligature (“two or more graphemes or letters are joined as a single glyph”). Ligatures still exist in typography, although less commonly today than in the past, but unless you specifically hunt for a typeface (aka font if you still erroneously conflate fonts and typefaces) that has them, and insert them manually from the symbol set. Assuming they even exist.

In my WordPress editor symbol set, for example, it shows only two ligatures: œ and æ. The former is the character once called  “ethel” and the latter was called “ash.” Both are relegated to the back benches of symbol sets instead of taking a front row in the alphabet as they once did.

However, some recent designers and typographers have chosen classical typefaces for their books and publication, so you may still find various ligatures in use. I think they lend a nice, formal touch to a printed document. And you can find some good pieces online about ligatures and here should you care to explore them further (and I’ve read you can turn them on in MS Word, although not in WordPress).

AmpersandThe ampersand is one of the few symbols that remains with us, although it’s a secondary character, and no longer counted in the alphabet (for a short while, it was the 27th letter). It began as a shorthand version of the Latin ‘et’ — called “and, per se, and” but corrupted to ampersand — which in English is the word and. But when the alphabet song was written in 1835, the ampersand was gone from the rhyming, although the sign itself remains on the keyboard, above the number 7.

And PS: the last letter of the alphabet is pronounced “zed” in English, not “zee” although Americans may argue otherwise. So La-Z-Boy is “lah-zed-boy” and EZ Clean is either “ee-zed clean” or “ehzz clean.” The band is “Zed-Zed Top.” And zebra is NOT pronounced zee-bra: it’s zeh-bra. Okay? 

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    “Often the languages these monks and missionaries were trying to transcribe contained sounds that Latin didn’t have, and there was no symbol for the sound they needed. In those cases, they might use an accent mark, or put two letters together, or borrow another symbol. Old English, for example, had a strange, exotic ‘th’ sound, for which they originally borrowed the thorn symbol (þ) from Germanic runes. They later settled on the two-letter combination th. For the most part, they used the Latin alphabet as they knew it, but stretched it by using the letters in new ways when other sounds were required. We still use that sound, with the th spelling, in English today.”


    You know the alphabet—it’s one of the first things you’re taught in school. But did you know that they’re not teaching you all of the alphabet? There are quite a few letters (defined somewhat loosely) that English largely tossed aside as our language grew, and you probably never even knew they existed (though in some cases, their fossils can still be seen).

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