#11: Why ‘th’ is Silly – Poor ‘Eth’ & ‘Thorn’

We have gone over digraphs enough – it may even seem like you’ve done a module on them by now if you follow this article series.  But as we have looked at graphemes quite a lot, what about ones that hold no meaning anymore – graphemes lost to time?  There are certainly quite a few of them and it is kind of hard to imagine the English alphabet with more, or even less letters, but the number twenty-six has fluctuated throughout history, and it’s actually currently a different number than it used to be.  First up, to help explain my indignation towards the silly <th> digraph, we shall be looking at two brilliant letters that have become extinct within the English Alphabet.  Enter: Eth and Thorn

<Þ, þ>

These are the upper- and lowercased varieties of the letter thorn, pronounced /θɔːn/ and generally allocated the IPA symbol of /θ/.  Thorn can be stylistically written to include itself in its own name – like most letter names do – as uppercase-initial, ‘Þorn’, or lowercase initial, ‘þorn’.  Yes.  I know what you likely may have thought or misread, but no, it’s not a joke – honestly.  The typeface for this grapheme’s capitalisation is somewhere in between that of <P> and <D> and it’s lowercase variant is odd in that it has both an ascending limb, such as <d, k, l, b>, as well as a descending limb, such as <q, y, p, j, ɡ>.

This letter was very common in Old and Middle English and was used often enough that you would probably have a job deciphering an old manuscript wondering whether or not the scribe had printed <p> or <b> when in fact, like <ð>, <þ> was a commonly printed letter in its temporal context.  The reason why this little letter was shamefully abolished from the alphabet was for stylistic purposes, at the particular time, the popular orthographic stylisms were to include more digraphs as scholars of this particular era were very interested in Greek and Latin and a whole cohort of Romance languages where digraphs were commonplace.

Scholars took it upon themselves to add more of things like this into the language to reduce the amount of letters within the alphabet.  This would be logistically easier to implement than having more graphemes as the printing press, which would rise during this era towards the end of Middle English, would be able to save on space and equipment than to use graphemes that already have similarities and confusion with others.

Þorn has, however, left its mark typically in names of pubs or old buildings and is often mistook for a <y> in titles such as ‘Ye Olde Inn’.  This was a decision of the printing press, that, upon its inception created a gothic-styled <Þ> which looked very similar to a gothic-styled <Y>, eventually becoming easier to type <Y>, ‘Ye Olde Inn’ should still be pronounced as /ðə/ in ‘the’ and not with a /j/ (a ‘y’).  The incoming scholarly preference for <th> over <þ> because the latter was too similar to <p, b>, alongside other reasons detailed, got the letter axed.  Which is a bit mean.

<Ð, ð>

These are the upper- and lowercased variants of the grapheme known as eth, pronounced /εð/ and generally allocated the IPA symbol of, well, itself – /ð/.  Eth can also have stylistic inclusivity of itself upon its name as ‘eð’, and, in full capitals as ‘EÐ’.  This grapheme’s typeface for the uppercase is the same as for <D> with the addition of a bar on the left-hand side of the letter, whilst the lowercase resembles <d> without a tail and the added inclusion of a bar in the now curved ascending limb.  It has a rather unique feel to it, in my opinion.

This is another letter axed by the time of Early Middle English.  It was used for a few centuries and appears to be a modification of Roman letter <d>, though some sources suggest that it originated from Irish writing – a version which I prefer – as it bares close resemblance to several writing styles at the time.  Þorn was used way earlier than eð but both became interchangeable forms for writing dental fricatives (voiced or not) and seen as writing systems back then were a lot more do-it-how-you-want-it (see article #2 on Old English spelling), it is easy to see why.

Eð became a little too similar to the <d> at the time, which was more curved back then, and for scribes who were writing these graphemes regularly, this became laborious and so, it fell out of favour and met a sad and sticky end before its precursor þorn.  It is a shame, because it was less difficult to distinguish between eð and other graphemes than for þorn, so if it had survived a little longer, it may well have remained until the present day.  Sadness.  It is also why þorn took over from eð and caused naughty people to say ‘ye’ instead of ‘the’.

Þorn remains present to some degree, as a linguistics student, and there are marks left by it in the likes of <Ye>, and the same goes for eð as it is used, very wisely, as itself in the IPA.  That said, <th> seems a littles boring and after centuries of no change within the alphabet, maybe it’s time to bring ‘em back?  Instead of seeing something like this…

“Marks of the seething phoenix – an unthinkable demon; its genre of language and thought is a farfetched archaeology that thrusts us far away from what is considered to be bland.”

…would look a little like this…

“Marks of the seeðing phoenix – an unþinkable demon; its genre of language and þought is a farfetched archaeology ðat þrusts us far away from what is considered to be bland.”

And don’t try and dissect that sentence too much – there’s a reason why such random words have been slung together.  I’m just saying that one version looks cooler than the other and it’s definitely the latter – after all, Icelandic still uses the letters <Þ þ Ð ð>, so we could always loan them back into English, again…

Next time, we’ll look at another highly common letter from Older Englishes – a letter called Yogh.

-DP, Linguistics student

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