The Grammarphobia Blog

Ye olde knickknack shoppe

Q: In your post about “you all,” you mentioned several Old English forms of “you,” including “ye.” Is that “ye” related to the one seen in the names of knickknack shops across the world? Did speakers of Old English pronounce it YEE or would a time-traveler expect THEE instead?

A: Two entirely different words, a pronoun and an article, are now both spelled as “ye.” But in Old English, they were neither spelled alike nor pronounced alike, and they didn’t begin with “y.”

The pronoun “ye,” as I wrote, was one of four archaic forms of “you.” It was always pronounced YEE, even though it originally began with an early form of the letter “g,” an old Anglo-Saxon rune that looked like a number “3″ with a flat top.

The original letter was replaced in the 12th century by a Middle English letter called the yogh, which looked something like a lowercase “z” written in script. The modern letter “y” replaced the yogh in the 13th century.

But the article “ye,” which exists today only in the pseudo-quaint names of businesses like Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe, never really existed as such in Old English.

The article was an earlier form of “the” and was pronounced like “the.” It never had a “y” sound. The “ye” spelling is a mistaken interpretation of Old English writing.

The article originally was se in Old English, but the “s” began to be replaced in the 10th century with an old Anglo-Saxon rune, the thorn, which represented a “th” sound.

The thorn, which looked something like a “p” with both an upper and a lower stem, was replaced by “th” in the 13th century.

So how did the “y” sneak in?

Over the years, the thorn’s upper stem became less pronounced as it was copied by scribes, and the letter came to resemble a backward “y.”

Even after the thorn was replaced by “th,” the old letter was sometimes used in abbreviations. But it wasn’t available in printer’s fonts, so printers used “y” instead.

Thus “ye” got its undeserved reputation as a defunct Old English article.

The other “ye,” the pronoun, is also defunct but at least it’s historically accurate. It and the other old second-person pronouns were eventually all combined into one, “you.”

In case you’re interested, “you” can be traced back to an ancient West Germanic word reconstructed as iwwiz, which is also the ancestor of the German euch and the Dutch u, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.

All these ancestors of “you” are ultimately derived from an Indo-European root, ju, which is also the source of Greek umme, Sanskrit yuyam, and Lithuanian jus.

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