by Erik Koht
Inspired by a Newavine discussion - forgive me if I don't remember which one - I went in search of documents from America's colonial era. As I pondered ... over many a quaint and curious volume, I happened to stumble upon an old acquaintance of mine: The word ye.
What on earth does it mean? We hear it, even sing it at Christmas; "..O Come All Ye Faithful." In this context it seems to mean you but it could also very well mean the. Then you have the rustic old sign anoucing "Ye Olde Coffee Shoppe." This time ye could mean your, but again, it might also mean the. My dictionary (NOAD) says ye is the plural form of thou. Many languages have different words for singular you and plural you, so that makes sense.
But it doesn't make sense everywhere. Look at this text from a solemn 1635 document, published on the Web by the Lillian Goldman Law Library. In this fragment the word ye appears 20 times, o ye gods!
This Indenture made ye Eighteenth day of Aprill in ye Eleaventh yeare of ye raigne of our Soveraigne Lord Charles by ye Grace of God King of England Scottland France & Ireland Defender of the ffaith &c Between ye Councill established at Plymouth in ye County of Devon for ye planting ruleing ordering & governing of New England in America of ye one part & John Wollaston cittizen & GoldSmith of london of ye other part wittnesseth yt whereas our late Sovraigne Lord King James of blessed memory by his highness Letters patients under ye great Seale of England beareing date at Westminster ye third day of Novembr in ye Eight year of his highness Raigne over ye Realme of England for ye consideracon in ye sd letters patents expressed hath absollltly given granted & confirmed unto ye sd Councill & thier Successors for ever All ye land of New England in America lying & being in breadth from fourty degrees of Northerly latitude from ye Equinoctiall line to fourty eight degrees of ye sd Northerly Latytude inclllsively & in length of & wthin all ye breadth aforesd from Sea to Sea together alsoe wth all...
Something is wrong, we can't be talking of the plural of thou all the time. In this text the plural of thou doesn't make sense a single time. But the does.
This means that the y in ye is a th. Replace the y with th and you get a text that makes sense. All those extra e's (yeare, raigne, Soveraigne) make sense, too, when you know the scribe got paid by the letter. Below is the same text with ye replaced by the.
"This Indenture made the Eighteenth day of Aprill in the Eleaventh yeare of the raigne of our Soveraigne Lord Charles by the Grace of God King of England Scottland France & Ireland Defender of the ffaith &c Between the Councill established at Plymouth in the County of Devon for the planting ruleing ordering & governing of New England in America of the one part & John Wollaston cittizen & GoldSmith of london of the other part wittnesseth yt whereas our late Sovraigne Lord King James of blessed memory by his highness Letters patients under the great Seale of England beareing date at Westminster the third day of Novembr in the Eight year of his highness Raigne over the Realme of England for the consideracon in the sd letters patents expressed hath absollltly given granted & confirmed unto the sd Councill & thier Successors for ever All the land of New England in America lying & being in breadth from fourty degrees of Northerly latitude from the Equinoctiall line to fourty eight degrees of the sd Northerly Latytude inclllsively & in length of & wthin all the breadth aforesd from Sea to Sea together alsoe wth all.."
William Shakespeare uses you and your. He wrote decades before the above document saw the light of day. I find it highly unlikely that the author of this document should revert to the outdated language of Geoffrey Chaucer.
Handwriting, spelling and letter shapes have evolved through the ages. Just like languages, they must be interpreted. In this case, it's the shape of the letter that needs to be understood. Using y in stead of th is a misinterpretation.
Y does indeed represent th, the th in the and that. The y is not a y at all: it's the forgotten letter thorn (þ), a letter that disappeared in English long ago. But our sample document shows that it was still in use 1635. Nevertheless, it's fate was sealed when it came to look like a y.
In the sample document I have used, there is a word spelled yt. I assume it means that. You'll also find regular ths, for instance in this, other and third. Each of these words is written the same way throughout the document. According to what spelling rule is not clear.
In Europe there used to be - and still are - several alphabets in use, the Roman or Latin alphabet, the Greek, the Cyrillic and the Futhark. The runic Futhark was used in eastern and northern Europe until the 12th century, maybe even longer. There were several variations. These co-existed with the Roman alphabet for several centuries.
The time of the Norse conquests on the British isles and in Ireland was not just blood and gore. It was also a period of geat mutual influence. Thus three letters or graphemes of the Futhark came to be integrated into the Roman alphabet. These three letters were thorn (þ), eth (ð) and yogh (ȝ). These letters were used for writing the /th/-sound of the, the /th/-sound of father and the /gh/-sound of old English enough. I guess that later the "thorn" and "eth" came to sound very much alike making one superfluous. The /yogh/-sound disappeared completely from ordinary English.
But "thorn" doesn't want to die. Today it lives on as a popular misinterpretation, disguised as y. As my example shows, even the academic world has accepted it, use it, offering no explanations or excuses. It only truly appreciated on Iceland, where it may appear anywhere, except at the end of a word.
Tilbake til hovedsiden / Back to main page.