Eth, thorn, and ash: they flunked the screen test for our alphabet

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Clapboard (clapperboard) isolatedEver wonder why we use the same letters “th” for the “this” and “thin”?  It is not always so in foreign languages – and didn’t have to be in ours. The answer is in the “eth”:

 eth“Originating from Irish, it was meant to represent a slightly different pronunciation of the “th” sound, more like that in ‘thought’ or ‘thing’ as opposed to the one found in ‘this’ or ‘them.’ (The first is the voiceless dental fricative, the second is the voiced dental fricative).

“Note that, depending on your regional accent, there may not be much of a difference (or any at all) in the two pronunciations anyway, but that’s Modern English. Back in the old days, the difference was much more distinct. As such, you’d often see texts with both eth and thorn depending on the required pronunciation. Before too long, however, people just began using thorn for both (and later ‘th’) and so eth slowly became unnecessary.”

The sad story is that this most useful letter didn’t make it into the final cut for our 26-letter alphabet.  The other far-flung rejects come from Iceland, Rome, and elsewhere.  A must-read over at mental floss features a few more.

Here are a couple favorites:

thornHave you ever seen a place that calls itself “ye olde whatever”? As it happens, that’s not a “y”, or, at least, it wasn’t supposed to be. Originally, it was an entirely different letter called thorn, which derived from the Old English runic alphabet, Futhark.

Thorn, which was pronounced exactly like the “th” in its name, is actually still around today in Icelandic. We replaced it with “th” over time—thorn fell out of use because Gothic-style scripting made the letters y and thorn look practically identical. And, since French printing presses didn’t have thorn anyway, it just became common to replace it with a y. Hence naming things like, “Ye Olde Magazine of Interesting Facts” (just as an example, of course).

And here’s the old familiar “ash,” as in Cæsar.

ashYou’re probably familiar with this guy from old-fashioned Greek or Roman style text, especially the kind found in churches. It’s even still used stylistically in words today, like æther and æon.

What you may not know, however, is that at one time the ae grapheme (as it’s now known) was an honorary English letter back in the days of Old English. It still had the same pronunciation and everything, it was just considered to be part of the alphabet and called “æsc” or “ash”after the ash Futhark rune, for which it was used as a substitute when transcribing into Latin

Read the rest over at mentalfloss here.  Anyone up for a revival?

A useful update from the University of Michigan’s John Lawler:

lawlerEth/Edh (ð) and ash (æ) are letters in the International Phonetic Alphabet, and also frequently-used phonemic symbols for English. Thorn never made it, however — the IPA and English phonemic symbol for voiceless interdental fricative is Greek theta (θ); ð is voiced, θ is voiceless. In most Middle English dialects, there was little or no phonemic distinction between voiced and voiceless TH; this was true of fricatives in general. But a multitude of changes brought distinctions between /s/ and /z/, /f/ and /v/, and inevitably /θ/ and /ð/. Though there are only two known minimal pairs for the /θ/-/ð/ distinction: ether (θ) vs either (ð), and thigh θ) vs thy (ð). This means that there’s very little “functional load” in the distinction, and that’s why we can get away with spelling them both the same way. Most people don’t even notice such differences until they collide with something.


23 Responses to “Eth, thorn, and ash: they flunked the screen test for our alphabet”

  1. John Lawler Says:

    Eth/Edh (ð) and ash (æ) are letters in the International Phonetic Alphabet, and also frequently-used phonemic symbols for English. Thorn never made it, however — the IPA and English phonemic symbol for voiceless interdental fricative is Greek theta (θ); ð is voiced, θ is voiceless. In most Middle English dialects, there was little or no phonemic distinction between voiced and voiceless TH; this was true of fricatives in general. But a multitude of changes brought distinctions between /s/ and /z/, /f/ and /v/, and inevitably /θ/ and /ð/. Though there are only two known minimal pairs for the /θ/-/ð/ distinction: ether (θ) vs either (ð), and thigh θ) vs thy (ð). This means that there’s very little “functional load” in the distinction, and that’s why we can get away with spelling them both the same way. Most people don’t even notice such differences until they collide with something.

  2. David Pawson Says:

    I love these poor, orphaned letters. Always have. If we had had a daughter, her name would have been Heaðer. Yes, I would have insisted on the eth.

  3. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Apologies for the delay in posting, David. Spam filters, etc. And it sounds like a good name for a daughter.

  4. Ryan Shaffer Says:

    I think I found a third minimal pair for eth and theta a while back (assuming contractions can be used): “this’ll” [‘ðιs.ɫ̩] and “thistle” [‘θιs.ɫ̩].

    Oh, and just to clarify: /æ/ called “ash” in the IPA represents a near-open unrounded front vowel, such as the “a” in “lap” or “pat.” When nasalized ([æ̃]), it is the “a” in “man.”

  5. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Interesting. Thanks for checking in, Ryan!

  6. David Graves Says:

    In my dialect “thin” and “then” are another minimal pair. I pronounce the latter [ðɪn] rather than [ðɛn].

  7. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks, David, and apologies for the late posting. Spam filters, etc.

  8. Elisabeth Nicolson Says:

    Dear Friends,

    And how about ‘YOGH? It is found all over Scotland and Shetland, written with a Z. Surname Menzies = Mingis, eg Ming Campbell, MP; Culzean Castle, Ayrshire= Culane Eisenhower had an apartment there!!; Monzie = Monee Castle, Perthshire. In Fetlar, Shetland there is Velzie = Villy; and Funzie = Finnie.

    I learned of ‘yogh’ from a BBC Radio Scotland programme, some years ago, now! ‘Yogh’ is in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

    With all good wishes from UNST, Shetland, 60 degrees north and the northernmost British Isle,

    Yours sincerely,

    Lis N nee Booth

    PS Regarding the OED, have you read ‘The surgeon of Crowthorne’ by Simon Winchester. The Surgeon is American, and helped to create the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). A rivetting read!!! EN

    ELISABETH NICOLSON
    16 NIKKAVORD LEA
    BALTASOUND
    UNST
    SHETLAND
    ZE2 9XL
    UK

  9. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks for the info, Elisabeth!

  10. Stacey Cody Says:

    We named our daughter Cædmon with the Æ. When we received her birth certificate, it was spelled incorrectly with instead of . We sent it back with a letter explaining the reason for her name, it’s origin, the letter choice, and information indicating that it was an actual letter, and asked it to be changed to the correct and intended spelling. We received our uncashed check and request back stating that they would do that if only they had the proper font available to them in their archaic computers . :-/ She just started school and I inquired whether she should learn it the proper way or with the letters and and her teacher said that it would be best to learn it as Caedmon first and then introduce the correct spelling later once she has mastered our current alphabet.

  11. Stacey Cody Says:

    We named our daughter Cædmon with the Æ. When we received her birth certificate, it was spelled incorrectly with ae instead of Æ. We sent it back with a letter explaining the reason for her name, it’s origin, the letter choice, and information indicating that it was an actual letter, and asked it to be changed to the correct and intended spelling. We received our uncashed check and request back stating that they would do that if only they had the proper font available to them in their archaic computers . :-/ She just started school and I inquired whether she should learn it the proper way or with the letters a and e and her teacher said that it would be best to learn it as Caedmon first and then introduce the correct spelling later once she has mastered our current alphabet.

  12. AmI Says:

    I was confused by the sentence near the top: “Originating from Irish, …” which seems to swap the pronunciations of thorn and eth.
    I find it interesting that all English function words starting with ‘th’ (the, this, that, then, there …) use the eth /dh/ sound,
    whereas all English lexical words starting with ‘th’ (thin, therapy, thumb …) use the thorn /th/ sound.
    Does the grapheme confusion between thorn and ‘Y’ also explain the evolution of ‘thou’ to ‘you’?
    Was ‘thee, thou, thy …’ spelled with thorn or eth? – or were both used?

  13. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Somebody smarter than I am will have to answer, Ami.

  14. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Sorry for the delayed posting, Stacey! Spam filters…

  15. Will B. Says:

    I propose you correct your claim regarding IPA. IPA previously used þ, which I witnessed in an older edition OED. Further, there is a variation of þ (ꝥ) that is fricative. Of course the world is much smaller now because of UTF8.

  16. Pickett Says:

    I am grateful for the contributors to this discussion.

  17. 리언 스이 Says:

    What about mouth (noun) and mouth (verb)? And teeth and teethe? Sure, there are many that have a change in vowel quality (sloth, breath/breathe, bath/bathe, &c.), but there are definitely more than just two minimal pairs. I’d hate to have to find more, but five is enough, right? Especially since there are languages like Archi which have a scant few instances of a phoneme appearing at all!

  18. Micah Says:

    The article makes it sound as though the voiced and voiceless “th” are hardly distinguished in modern English, but that seems obviously not the case. All dialects of English I’m aware of pronounce “the,” “this,” “there,” “that,” (as well as “thou” and “thy”) with the voiced “th” (corresponding to the letter “eth”), and other, substantival, words like “thing,” “thick,” “thin,” “thorn,” and “thump” with the voiceless, “hard” “th”.

  19. Lisa Says:

    I met my best friend in grad school when we studied Anglo-Saxon and other Germanic topics in historical linguistics. We became roommates and adopted a LOT of cats along the way. Two little ones from a litter were named Ash and Wynn in honor of the letters. Twenty years later, our families still get together, and we joke about naming the kids Thorn and Yogh. Thanks for the article!

  20. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks for joining us, Lisa!

  21. NKT Says:

    What a fun little article.

    Yes, thou would’ve been corrupted to You by print. So long, Þ. You’re missed and not forgotten!

  22. Sanjay Says:

    I have seen “ye”, where “e” is superscript, as an abbreviation for “the” in old English texts.
    what are “yc” and “yw” abbreviations for, where both the “c” and “w” are superscript?
    Thanks!

  23. -jeffB Says:

    I’d LOVE to see some examples in context of “yc” and “yw”. Might “yw” be “thou”?

    Google apparently isn’t quite up to the challenge of finding these particular digraphs…

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