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There's a lot of good information in the answer to an existing question about thou/you and thee/ye, and many are familiar with how shops with the affectation of "Ye Olde Shoppe" get that "Y" from a corruption of the letter þ. This might be nothing more than a coincidence, but is there any connection between these two phenomena?

It seems unlikely to me, given how far back the forms of thou/you and thee/ye go (pre-printing press), but one way that coincidence might be explained is if the "y" in you and ye used to be pronounced something like the thorn (which would then make me wonder how the thou and thee were pronounced).

So, can anyone shed any light on whether there's a possible connection here, or can anyone definitely demonstrate that this is purely coincidence?

  • You're seriously considering the possibility that the now-obsolete spoken distinction between second person singular and plural pronouns came about because of a quirk of orthography? At a time when hardly anyone could read or write! – FumbleFingers Sep 17 '16 at 16:50
  • @FumbleFingers: No, I'm explicitly not, although if you're asking I suppose I didn't make that clear enough. I'm asking if that quirk of orthography was possibly aided due to an alternate pronunciation of 'y' that reinforced it. Exactly because there isn't much (if anything) written down about how people pronounced things back then, I'm wondering if this coincidence might be more than just a coincidence. – Ben Hocking Sep 17 '16 at 17:42
  • Well, that "quirk of orthography" (the fact that thorn looked a bit like Y) obviously wasn't aided enough, since the letter doesn't even exist any more! – FumbleFingers Sep 17 '16 at 18:45
  • That's the explanation in en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thorn_(letter); the form was indistinguishable from Y; the article explains why it disappeared. I always thought it was due to revoking of Edict of Nantes, resulting in French Hugonaut typographers swarming Britain. They hadn't seen the thorn, so replaced it with Y. [There is a bit more: there were two letters with the two th sounds, thorn and edh (still in Icelandic), representing soft and hard versions. The edh was gradually replaced by the thorn in English. Too bad, it would have nice to have two letters rep the two sounds.] – David Handelman Sep 17 '16 at 23:23
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I'm asking if that quirk of orthography was possibly aided due to an alternate pronunciation of 'y' that reinforced it.

No, there was no such alternate pronunciation.

At the time that thee was still in heavy use in much of the English-speaking world, it was as different to the ears and eyes of English speakers as we and I are today in terms of the perceived meaning, and as different as "thought" and "yacht" in terms of phonetics. Thee did not merge with ye or thou with you, but rather in most regions people simply stopped saying the singular thee and thou except perhaps when they came across it in their prayer book. And when they did say it as part of the Lord's Prayer, they were not confused as to how it was pronounced. Thee just died a death out of politeness. People were using the polite plural for more and more groups of people, to the point where nobody was left being covered by the more familiar singular. (Notably, when Quaker "plain speech" revived thee with a more egalitarian use, the perceived impoliteness led some to beating up said Quakers).

Meanwhile, the spelling had already become thee in almost all use, and when printing started in the English language Þ had already largely been abandoned. Caxton did include Þ in his sorts, but made little use of it. By the time English was being printed, thee was not spelled with a thorn.

The main exception the lack of the letter Þ in English printing is as part of the scribal Þe, which of course brings us to the other part of your question, but the inclusion of Þe was akin to the inclusion of & and likewise that scribes at the time still used Þe for the was pretty much exactly analogous to people using & for and today.

That Þe became Ye is due only to Þ looking more like Y in the sort of blackletter typefaces used (where the upper part of the bow of the Þ is thinner than the rest) than any other letter. Had the print styles at the time been closer to the sort of serif and sans-serif typefaces we use today it would likely have become Pe instead, and people would be saying "Pee Oldie shoppie".

  • This answer is great and I couldn't agree more. However, you need to add references to improve it, see How to Answer. – BladorthinTheGrey Sep 21 '16 at 16:05
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    @BladorthinTheGrey just downvote it, because I'm not going to bother digging up a biography of Caxton or go through a sample of his books counting the letter Þ, so unless I was going to cite something stupid like wikipedia, nope. – Jon Hanna Sep 21 '16 at 16:09
  • Fair enough, I don't want to down-vote because I know not to be factually flawless. Perhaps I can find references and edit them in, or someone else can have a crack. – BladorthinTheGrey Sep 21 '16 at 16:12
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    As it happens, Wikipedia's illustrations of thorn and y are not unhelpful. But they are a bit small for quoting here. – Andrew Leach Sep 21 '16 at 16:13
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No; Thou and You date back to Proto-Indo-European--French even has cognates: tu and vous. They both date back to the roots *tú2 and *yūs.

The fact that "you" used to be spelt ȝou, and gu before that, are very conclusive on their own.

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    could you provide some links to help us verify your answer? check out help and the tour for help with answering. – marcellothearcane Jun 21 '17 at 17:45
  • Erm.. What's a PIE? – NVZ Jun 22 '17 at 5:11
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    @NVZ - Generally a very tasty dish, generally consisting of either a sweet or savoury filling inside a pastry case. Either that or it's Proto Indo-European. – AndyT Jun 22 '17 at 11:34

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