History · Literature · Musings

A lesson in Old English

I am writing this about one of my (many) language pet peeves. I have a lot of them, yes, because I have had centuries to cultivate various linguistic dislikes.

Tonight, we will turn our attention to one of my major pet peeves of Old English. Use of the word “ye” in anything meant to be spoken, whether aloud, or in historical fiction/nonfiction written today. You all know the word “ye,” I hope. Such as in the phrase, “ye olde,” or “ye fawning flimsy-nosed flap-dragon.”

“Ye” was the product of lazy English. Imagine it as a sort of early modern short hand. Rather than write out the entire word “the,” writers would use a symbol known as the thorn. Which looked like this:
thornletter

In its early stages, the thorn looked like an elaborate letter “p” though its sound was similar to the “th” sound like in English word “this.” Over time, as scribes copied documents using the thorn as an easy substitute to the “th,” the shape of it changed such that it began to be written in a form similar to the English “y.” But it was never pronounced with a “y” sound. It was always pronounced as a “th.” The word “ye” was never spoken as “ye” with a “y” sound. Even though it was written “ye,” it was still pronounced as the word “the.”

8 thoughts on “A lesson in Old English

    1. It can be tricky because, due to people’s misunderstanding of the word “ye,” the word “ye” did in fact become a slang term for the word “you.” But it is not correct Old English.

      1. Haha. Then tell me, until when Old English was in use? I read books written between the late 18th and the the early 20th century mostly and “ye” I usually find in quotations inside the texts. I know I’ve come across one in Moby Dick but I cannot find the passage again.

        1. Old English began to transform into Middle English after the Norman Conquest. It was at that point that the English language began to evolve with the influence of various other European languages, with French being one of the more important. It was during this confusing shift in language that the thorn began to be drawn as a “y” letter, in fact.

  1. I just picked up the Geneva Bible written in 1599 (a copy, not the original, unfortunately) and in it’s pages is a glossary of Middle-English terms. This has been helpful when I am not able to discern what is meant. The printers have also included all 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation as well as other historical documents. Just the name “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior” made me think of you; have you read these rules? If so what are your thoughts on them? For myself some are easy to follow and have been for most of my life and others would be exceedingly difficult to follow.

    This time period of language is very interesting to me. See, I love all languages as I believe that language more accurately reflects the culture and people of any given time verses artifacts. At this time period you are right (of course) the large change that English withstood to become something like what is spoken now. I find the whole venture rather enthralling so please forgive me if I am rambling.

    1. I have in fact read the “Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour.” Today, little importance is placed upon proper behaviour and etiquette. People value too much the free expression of the self, which is in itself not a bad thing, but it lends too heavily toward people forgetting their manners and the needs of the others around them. It becomes an exercise in who can shout the loudest and outdo the other. The self comes at the expense of the collective. I think we could do a bit more with people learning the basics of proper behaviour.

      Though 100+ rules are a lot to remember and follow, and some are simply too fastidious. Turn your head just so when you cough. Cover a spot of dirt properly. These are things that are tedious and easy to forget in the moment. But others, ones such as about manner of dressing, of being humble and never too prideful or loud, these are fundamentals to a polite society. A polite society that is all but dead, and this is most grievous.

      Please, ramble on. I have a tendency to ramble myself, and I think there is much to learn in the ramblings of others.

      1. Very well, I shall ramble on then. I quite agree with you that polite society is all but gone, sadly. Thus I try to practice some of these rules in my everyday life to help enrich myself and to lead by example to others.

        I thought to do a little experiment: I plan to post a couple of the rules on the bulletin board at work to see if they would have any effect on how we treat one another or if they would just be ignored. My hope is that some at least are effected by them. I work in a place where politeness is not always valued due to the nature of the field. At times one must be forceful, not sparing others feelings, to be a good advocate.

        The part of this lost polite society I most wish to return is the chivalry aspect of it. As such when I see such behaviors in a man it catches my eye…perhaps that is one of the reasons I find myself here. I guess that is why I was not at all surprised that you have read ” The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior”

        1. You will have to tell me the results of this experiment. I would like to know if those rules have any impact on behaviour, or if they just go disregarded, or indeed if people even take offence to them.

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