A Conversation for Thorn - Missing Letter of the Alphabet

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Post 1

MotDoc, Temporarily Exiled to Tartu, Estonia

I don't understand how the thorn rune looks particularly like a y of any sort.

Also, it had always been my understanding that the eth was intended to represent the voiced th sound, which is today sometimes transcribed as dh. Certainly that is the way it is used in the International Phonetic Alphabet.

Shape confusion & a voice in the wilderness

Post 2


You can see the resemblance between the thorn and the lower-case y by looking at some of the scribal hand-written letters of the period. The resemblance is particularly striking in what's known as the black letter types. Another absolutely fascinating letter of the time is the English courthand "w" - I may discuss the origin of "w" in an article soon.

You're not the only one to be confused by the notion of one rune being used for a voiced "th", and another to be used for a voiceless "th". This is actually a late concept, and its origins can't really be traced back to the contemporary use in Old English or Middle English of the respective symbols. Historical linguists today don't ALL agree, of course - but the majority acknowledge that there was absolutely no cut-and-dried symbology for voiced "th" and voiceless "th" during the period. You may have come across some misleading information online about these letters - don't forget that a great deal of the information posted online is done so by enthusiastic amateurs rather than those with a linguistic degree and some solid research into the subject.

Do you want some good references for further reading? I'll just mention a few (and I feel too lazy at the moment to check publisher and date, but feel free to get in touch with me if you want any further information):

Blumenthal, Joseph. Art of the Printed Book: 1455-1955 (extremely interesting and well researched);
Boyd, Beverly. Chaucer and the Medieval Book (you can tell it's an American publication because of the spelling of Mediæval, but it is truly an absorbing book);
Carter, Harry. A View of Early Typography (If I remember correctly, this directly addresses the first concern you mentioned, but my copy was stolen about a year ago, so I can't check it. I can only hope the thieves feel particularly well-read by now. Ah well.);
Clodd, Edward. The Story of the Alphabet;
Diringer, David. The Book before printing;
Drogin, Marc. Medieval Calligraphy: Its History and Technique. (LOVE this book!)

Um... I'll stop there, unless specifically requested to list more and more books on the subject. Oh, and if you can get hold of a copy of Kurath's Middle English dictionary, you'll be in Letter Heaven, if that's what does it for you. Just be sure to read it in a restaurant, and groan aloud in pleasure à la "When Harry met Sally", and wait for the response as people want desperately to "read what she's/he's reading"...

Shape confusion & a voice in the wilderness

Post 3


Thanks very much for a lovely article.

I was aware that ye should be pronounced the but I did not know the full richness of the explanation you have provided.

Good stuff smiley - ok

Shape confusion & a voice in the wilderness

Post 4

Smij - Formerly Jimster

Something to consider about runes is how they were presented. Not sure if this has been mentioned here, by the way.

Because the runic letters generally appeared on sheets of wood, they had to avoid horizontal lines to prevent the grain from weakening, cracking the wood. That's why runic letters tend to be made up of verticals and diagonals. So if you straighten out the vertical line in a 'y' and then move the right-hand fork to a horizontal, you get a more 't'-shaped letter.

smiley - smiley

Shape confusion & a voice in the wilderness

Post 5


Fewer curly letters also as it's easy to carve straight lines quickly but an S or a C poses a problem smiley - smiley

Shape confusion & a voice in the wilderness

Post 6


excellent observation

What about the ƒ - the OTHER missing letter?

Post 7


This is incredibly fascinating, but surely the Thorn isn't the only missing letter from the English alphabet?

I have a vague iea this has nothing to do with runes and stuff and came into English a lot later, but what's the provenance of the letter ƒ in English and why did it drop from regular use?

The ƒ is that letter beloved of comedians trying to take the piƒƒ out of English speech circa the 1600's. It looks like an 'f' but its pronunciation is midway between an 's' and a 'z', as far as I can make out from context. Now most of our letters have names - ay, bee, cee, and so on - but this one seems to be anonymous, unless its name has dropped out of common usage as well?

If a letter had a voice, this one might well be saying:

"Oh ƒhit, ƒacked from the alphabet. Bloody reƒtructuring and rationaliƒation, first it's old Wyn who gets his P45, then it's Thorn for compulƒory redundanƒy, now it's me... watch out, Z, your turn next!"

What about the ƒ - the OTHER missing letter?

Post 8


ƒ is indeed a fascinating character. The modern S we use today is based on the monumental Roman capital letter, but that elongated flattened "s" form, ƒ, is a development of the letter in late Roman-early mediæval times, and it enjoyed extensive use in various scripts of the Middle Ages. Thus we see two common "s" forms by the gothic (11th century) period, and the form we're used to today is the form of "s" which was consistently used for word endings, whereas the long flattened "s", ƒ, was used throughout the words (mostly the beginning and the middle). This held true for printers (following suit) as well as the earlier manuscript books.

Interestingly, it was the Italian language that did away with the long ƒ, because Italian scribes used the long and short "s" forms indiscrimately as a result of not realising the convention of using the short "s" for word endings. It's easy to see why - Italian words generally do not have "s" endings! With Italian scribes and scholars being prolific and influential with regard to book printing and writing during the Renaissance, their use of the short "s" in transcriptions of Latin texts began to impact on scribes in other countries as well. By the eighteenth century, the ƒ (long "s") form had become obsolete in English usage, and so too had the use of a double "s" sign, ß. It is in German that this double "s", the Eszet, persists, although with the new spelling (which I frankly loathe), it's being replaced by "ss". It is also in German that we still find the ƒ in the Goethe-Schrift (largely discontinued, but still used by some), a mediæval black letter type.

What about the ƒ - the OTHER missing letter?

Post 9

TRiG (Ireland) A dog, so bade in office

Interesting. The Greeks also have two symbols for a lower case s (sigma).

σ appears at the beginning or middle of a word.

ς appears at the end of a word.

Σ is the only capital symbol, for beginning middle or end.

But, in Cyprus at least, if you're writing in block capitals and want a capital sigma at the end of a word, it is often written and the Latin S. I don't think that this is done in Greece itself.

Hence, the book I saw on sale called ΚΥΠΡΟS (Cyprus).

TRiG.smiley - ok

What about the ƒ - the OTHER missing letter?

Post 10

TRiG (Ireland) A dog, so bade in office


What about the ƒ - the OTHER missing letter?

Post 11


Ther's more, there's more! Scots (and Anglo-Saxon) had a "g" sound which particularly in the middle of a word tended to be pronounced as a "y". When printing came in the closest approximation in the standard type set was "z". From this we get a whole variety of "z"'s in Scotland which are pronounced as either "y" or "ng" - Culzean Castle, Queenzieburn, the capercailzie and at least two surnames, Dalziel and Menzies.

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