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There

Their

They're

I understand why They're is spelled the way it is. It's a contraction of the words "They" and "are", and it is used in the same way. However, the words There and Their are spelled differently yet sound the same.

Why?

Were they pronounced differently at one point, similar to how night and knight are? (if so, how were they pronounced? Or do the spellings have another origin to them?

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    Many times things are spelled differently if they have different meanings, even if they're pronounced the same. It's the same thing with its and it's. Spelling is so bad at representing the language that people feel it needs all the help it can get, even apostrophe's; of course making it hard to read and spell is not any help, but their heart is in the right place even if their brains are somewhere else. – John Lawler Jan 16 '17 at 21:58
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    The pronunciations of those three words are minutely differnet. Also there aren't any alternative spellings for "There", as they're (they are) and their are different words. – 3kstc Jan 16 '17 at 22:32
  • @3kstc Where I am from, the three separate words are identical in pronunciation. When I said 'There' in the title, I meant the sound. The question is asking why the way the word sounds is spelled three different ways. John Lawler, I understand written language benefits from different spellings, I was just curious as to WHY the spellings were different. Thanks guys! Appreciate the comments! – Steven Rogers Jan 16 '17 at 22:59
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    @StevenRogers, so you mean the like pronunciation of the colour "red" (pronounced rĕd), and the past tense of read, "read" (also pronounced as rĕd). – 3kstc Jan 16 '17 at 23:04
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As with many of these kind of words in English, you have to look at the origin and family history:

From the Online Etymology Dictionary:

their (pron.) : plural possessive pronoun, c. 1200, from Old Norse þierra "of them," genitive of plural personal and demonstrative pronoun þeir "they" (see they). Replaced Old English hiera. As an adjective from late 14c.

there (adv., conj.) Old English þær "in or at that place, so far as, provided that, in that respect," from Proto-Germanic *thær (source also of Old Saxon thar, Old Frisian ther, Middle Low German dar, Middle Dutch daer, Dutch daar, Old High German dar, German da, Gothic þar, Old Norse þar), from PIE *tar- "there" (source also of Sanskrit tar-hi "then"), from root *to- (see the) + adverbial suffix -r.

Meanwhile "they are" also comes from the Old Scandinavian þeir, þer, or þair (the root of "their"), and Old English earun. Apparently the Norse "they" replaced the Old English hīe used at the time, but people still used the Old English "to be" verb. The contraction happened somewhere along the way between then and now.

More information

As this comment states, they were probably pronounced very differently from how they are pronounced today, although "they" and "their" were probably always similarly pronounced since one is the root of the other.

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    I believe that's a typo in the Etymonline quote: unless I'm misremembering my basic Old Norse, it was þeirra (as in Modern Icelandic), not þierra. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Jan 16 '17 at 22:11
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    @JanusBahsJacquet That would make sense, considering it's "their" not "thier". – Andrew Jan 16 '17 at 22:17

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