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It is my understanding that the article ye as used in archaic spellings such as “Ye Olde Yereminne Shoppe” originates from spelling þe as ye with moveable type when the typeface did not feature the letter þ (thorn).

Therefore, I would assume that the historically correct™ pronunciation is /ðə/ or /þə/ (or /ði/ or /þi/ when preceding a vowel). However, little surprisingly, some people will instead use the spelling-induced pronunciation /jiː/, /jə/, or similar. My question is how much I can smugly look down on such people: Is there any basis for a pronunciation using /j/ other than misunderstanding an intentionally archaic spelling¹?

  • Did a pronunciation with /j/ already emerge when people were typesetting ye as an article unironically (as opposed to archaically)?
  • Is there any other reason for pronunciation with /j/ unrelated to the makeshift spelling?

Note that this is only about the article ye, not the pronoun.


¹ … or, to be precise: a reproduction of historic makeshift typesetting

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  • 7
    Ye is not an "intentionally archaic spelling". It's a misunderstood old glyph for an even older character/letter. As you described. They didn't have codepoints back in the day. There is no basis for pronouncing it /ji:/ So you can feel free to look down upon the ignorati from as high a perch as you can find. :-)
    – TimR
    Commented Aug 19, 2023 at 13:56
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    Unless they actually pronounce it 'yee oldi' which at least hints at knowing irony;)
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Aug 19, 2023 at 16:02
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    In my experience, most people would pronounce "Ye Olde Tea Shoppe" as ye oldi tea shoppi to indicate the way it is spelled on the sign. They may or may not be aware that the 'archaic' spelling of "the" represents a writing convention and not an 'old word for it'. Commented Aug 19, 2023 at 16:11
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    @eltomito, if you have documentary evidence for a Slavic route for this pronunciation, then that would make a fine answer. Otherwise, it's probably best to leave the speculation alone. Commented Aug 20, 2023 at 7:52
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    @JohnLawler - Of course you pronounce the name of a shop/restaurant when talking about it! I'm talking about mock-archaic spelling used as a gimmick. Naturally, when reading out a genuinely old inscription, ye as an article should be pronounced the. Commented Aug 20, 2023 at 8:24

4 Answers 4

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I don't know how to answer your question besides stating that, no, there is zero historical basis for pronouncing ye with a /j/ sound.

The best I can do is point you to a scholar unequivocally declaring this.

John Algeo and Carmen A. Butcher in The Origins and Development of the English Language:

In a few words, notably the and thee, early printed books sometimes used y to represent the sounds usually spelled th. This substitution was made because the letter þ was still much used in English manuscripts, but the early printers got their type fonts from the Continent, where the letter þ was not normal. So they substituted for þ the closest thing they found in the foreign fonts, namely y. Thus the and thee were both sometimes printed as yᵉ. The plural pronoun meaning 'you all', on the other hand, was written ye. When the e was above the line, the y was always a makeshift for þ and never represented [y].

Writing letters superscript, especially the final letter of a word, was a device to indicate abbreviation, much as we use a period. This convention lasted right through the nineteenth century, for example, in for Mr. or Genˡ for General. The abbreviation yᵗ stands for that. The form yᵉ for the survives to our own day in such pseudo-antique absurdities as "Ye Olde Choppe Suey Shoppe," in which it is usually pronounced as if it were the same word as the old pronoun ye. Needless to say, there is no justification whatever for such a pronunciation.

A similarly confident assertion is made by linguists Mullany and Stockwell, who say:

‘Ye’ was never pronounced /ji/ but always /ðə/.

As @walen suggested, here's a picture of that yᵉ symbol:

smaller "e" above "y" in black letter font

[From Wikimedia]

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  • The pronoun ‘ye’ was pronounced /ðə/? Strange. Commented Aug 20, 2023 at 10:56
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    @user3840170: If this is about the second citation, the context makes it clear that this refers only to the article.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Aug 20, 2023 at 11:00
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    @user3840170 It was the medieval equivalent of the, not a pronoun.
    – TimR
    Commented Aug 20, 2023 at 11:00
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    Here's an example of how the yᵉ glyph looked, if you want to add it to the answer to show how much close to þ it looked than current y: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:EME_ye.svg
    – walen
    Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 8:10
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    @vectory: The belly, so to speak, of the "ye" glyph and its descender do resemble thorn as it appeared in manuscripts. It was not a perfect match, to be sure, but was serviceable.
    – TimR
    Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 10:36
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The answer by Heartspring, as well as the question itself, have already explained well why 'there is zero historical basis for pronouncing ye with a /j/ sound'. That explanation, however, does not entail the judgement (appearing at the end of the long quotation in Heartspring's answer) that 'there is no justification whatever for such a pronunciation' of ye when it appears in the names of various present-day businesses.

The businesses that include ye in their names are usually not trying to convince their customers that they have been in existence since the time when such spelling was common. The spelling is, rather, a manifestation of deliberate whimsy, and is perceived as such by most of the customers. These customers, when talking about the business, may then use /j/ as a way of going along with the whimsy. If they pronounced ye 'correctly', as if it were the, the whimsy would be lost. The pronunciation is not a result of their 'misunderstanding an intentionally archaic spelling', but rather of their correct understanding of the playful nature of the present-day use of that spelling, and their wishing to convey it to their interlocutors. It is probably true that many of them don't know the actual history of that spelling, but that history is irrelevant to what they are trying to convey when speaking of 'Ye . . . Shoppe'. Those who know the history may be annoyed when they hear such names pronounced with a /j/, but then they should also be annoyed with the spelling itself, for which there is, of course, no reason other than whimsy.

(This answer is an elaboration of the point that was already made by Ms. Bunting in the comments below the question.)

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    So your answer is...'No, there isn't any historical basis, but who cares, the spelling itself is in jest, so no need to judge.'? (crude paraphrasing, I know) Commented Aug 26, 2023 at 17:59
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    @Heartspring, mostly, yes, but also that the 'incorrect' pronunciation is more informative, in that it tells one's interlocutor how the name is spelled. If I wanted to meet someone at Ye Olde Tea Shoppe and in arranging the meeting pronounced ye as if it were the, the person may not be able to find the place. I suspect that alphabetically ordered directories would list such a business under y, even if they otherwise ignore articles.
    – jsw29
    Commented Aug 26, 2023 at 18:35
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    This post adds little to an existing comment, which was justifiably posted as a comment – as it is not an answer.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Aug 27, 2023 at 17:22
  • @Wrzlprmft, comments, as the moderators keep reminding us, can disappear anytime. What necessitated posting this as an answer is that the accepted and most highly upvoted answer contains the claim that 'there is no justification whatever for such a pronunciation'. Answers on a page of this site are meant to speak to its future visitors, and not just to its OP, and, if that claim is not countered in an answer, the future visitors to this page may be led to annoyingly 'correct' everybody who uses /j/ in pronouncing such names, notwithstanding that there are good reasons for doing that.
    – jsw29
    Commented Aug 27, 2023 at 21:07
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OP asked

Did a pronunciation with /j/ already emerge when people were typesetting ye as an article unironically (as opposed to archaically)?

No. The thorn glyph in the late Middle English period stood for a dental, not a palatal. The manuscript image shows the definite article (modern-day the) with a thorn that may look vaguely like a Y to modern eyes unfamiliar with late medieval scribal practice, but the actual y-glyph appears in the word immediately to the right of it in the word bigynyng. These two glyph were not confused with one another and there is no reason to suppose that thorn was ever associated with a palatal /j/.

  • Fewer than 1 out of 10 men could read in the 15th century. Even fewer women. Those who could read would have recognized from context that the word on the typeset page was not a pronoun but the article.

  • The thorn glyph in manuscripts was often clearly distinguishable from the Y glyph (see Wycliffe image) and readers were not as likely to be confused by the continental glyph for the typeset page as a modern person unfamiliar with manuscripts might imagine them to have been

  • Businesses, if they had street signs, were not limited to fonts used in the printing presses.

Some comments above seem to assume that the way scribes produced the letter thorn in manuscripts during the Old English period was how the glyph stayed for the next half millennium or so, until movable typeface arrived on the scene. Not so. Here's a late 14th century thorn, and you can clearly see the resemblance between this late-medieval thorn glyph and the Y-shaped glyph in the movable typeface that was deployed to represent the letter.

The word þe was recognized as the medieval equivalent of modern English "the", their definite article, which in turn tells us how it was pronounced. No chance in heaven or hell it was pronounced like the pronoun ye.

late 14th century thorn

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  • @Wrzlprmft You do understand that the definite article would not have been pronounced like the pronoun ye?
    – TimR
    Commented Aug 21, 2023 at 19:15
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    @TimR that's circular reasoning, if you assume that one already knows the answer, your comment-answer adds no new insights and doesn't help.
    – vectory
    Commented Aug 22, 2023 at 5:44
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    I understand that it’s unlikely that the article ye would have been pronounced /jə/ or similar. I also understand that you can’t prove a negative and that a higher unlikelihood is all I can get. However, this answer does not provide any arguments increasing the unlikelihood over the baseline I set out in my question (as opposed to the other answer).
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Aug 22, 2023 at 7:26
  • Someone deleted my previous comment so I will repeat it in softer language. The glyph is used to spell the definite article, and we know how that article was pronounced in the Middle English period and during the Early Modern period and it NEVER EVER began with /j/. So if you cannot accept that this is an argument showing you how wrong you are, that is your shortcoming not mine.
    – TimR
    Commented Aug 26, 2023 at 16:36
  • @vectory: I'm showing you evidence that the thorn glyph that vaguely resembled a Y during the late Middle English period was used for the definite article in manuscripts of the Wycliffe bible. We know how that article was pronounced from tons of corroborating evidence. There are dental fricative and dental plosive variants, but the leading dental was never pronounced as /j/. So to assume that it could have been or might have been pronounced with a leading /j/ because the glyph seems to resemble a Y and was later misunderstood during the modern era is wrongheaded.
    – TimR
    Commented Aug 26, 2023 at 16:48
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For reference

Middle English possessed a determiner spelled variously hie, yhe, yeo etc. before Modern English she/her became standard. The origin is not completely certain, see Wiktionary on she:

Probably from Old English hēo (whence dialectal English hoo), with an irregular change in stress from hēo to heō /hjoː/, then a development from /hj-/ to /ç/ to /ʃ-/

Probably, as I understand it, means: it’s complicated. There is a non-negligable chance that ye could legitimately be read as an article because pronominals were in flux.

The exclusive assumption that ye was always read the (supra, three prior answers) is not necessary nor sufficient. For a positive answer it is sufficient if ye could be read the. Then we should expect that ye could be read ambiguously ye and therefore the. This is tenable on semantic grounds and possibly on phonetic grounds. Both points are uncertain and have been grossly overlooked.

The Middle English pronoun heo meaning she:

From Old English hēo, hīe. Probably a doublet of sche; see that entry for more.

Alternative forms

  • he, hie, hi, hye, hy, hoe, ho, hue, hu, hw, ȝeo, ȝe, ȝhe, ȝoe, ȝo, ȝho, yhe, yo, yio, ge, ghe, ha, a*

Homonym senses in Middle English include: “It; used also of inanimate objects" and alternative forms of he (“he”) and he (“they”). At first sight, this does not include the the that the trivial solution would require. It has to be more complicated. Notice they:

  1. Anecdotally, they schools is permissible in some southern AAVE dialect today (e.g. in the title of a Dead Prez song), apparently older. The origin is uncertain (OED apud Wiktionary for the determiner they):

    1. (now Southern England dialect or nonstandard) The, those. [from 14th c.]
      […]

    2. (US dialects, including African-American Vernacular) Their. [from 19th c.]

  2. The ambiguity of the third-person pronoun they, on the other hand, is in line with the reasonably great variation of determiners in Germanic languages. Its origin story has received renewed interest in previous years and should be reviewed along with the.

    Traditionally, Old Norse þeir is identified in English around the 13th century, as the plural of the Norse demonstrative . Taking the form of they it “displaced native Middle English he from Old English hīe” and it was arguably integrated with the singular paradigm without completely replacing it, too, as “usage of they as a singular pronoun began in the 1300s and has been common ever since […]” (Wiktionary)

    Marcelle Cole argues against the Norse hypothesis with “A native origin for Present-Day English they, their, them” (Diachronica 35:2 (2018), 165–209), quite convincingly (boldface mine):

    I present evidence to suggest that a cross-paradigmatic merger in function in ONbr [Old Northumbrian] led to the replacement of the inherited OE h-pronouns by þ-pronouns. The merger is unsurprising in that comparable developments are found cross-linguistically in both Germanic and non-Germanic languages, and þ-forms were already used as anaphoric pronouns in OE.

    Note that “Orthographically the Lindisfarne glossator favours <ð> over <þ>.” (p. 174), which we transcribe th, usually voiced or unvoiced respectively.

  3. This transformative process did arguably include the s-forms, since th-forms have replaced Old English sēo as articles, pronouns and determiners to some extent. See Wiktionary on the Old English determiner sēo:

    nominative feminine singular of se: the

    [usage example] sēo cwēn ― the queen

    nominative feminine singular of sē: that (a greeing with feminine nouns)

    nominative feminine singular of : she, that one

  4. Corollary: Our the descends from “a late variant of ” (Wiktionary on þe).

    This is formally equivalent to Norse sá, þeir, etc. The details remain open, for the sake of the argument, because this corner of etymology is dense.

This shows two things. The problem space is not completely understood. A chance of h-forms competing with th-forms is realistic and yet difficult to understand. This predates printing.


Note that articles are a relatively recent innovation which is difficult to explain, because many related languages like Old Norse and Latin do not have a definite article. Note in particular Dutch het, which may behave like an article, and Latin ille etc., which is distantly related to you.

Note also that English you had replaced former thou in the second person singular between the 12th and 16th century by the latest, credited to the influence of honorific forms in similar usage elsewhere (Etymonline).

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  • I fail to follow your logic: If ye could be read the (/ðə/ or similar) this does not mean that yᵉ (or similar) could be read ye (/je/ or similar). Also, if I understand the connection you are making correctly we have: 1) the is sometimes replaced by they (article). 2) they (pronoun) replaced he (plural pronoun). 3) He is related to heo (female singular pronoun). 4) Heo is a cognate of ȝhe (third-person pronoun). 5) Ȝhe (second-person pronoun) is an alternative form of ye (second-person prounoun). — That’s quite a few big leaps, probably happening centuries apart.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Sep 20, 2023 at 20:23
  • @Wrzlprmf Your saying "this does not mean that" is excluding the middle. I argue that the law of the excluded middle does not apply when we introduce a ternary term. Ye is ambiguous, and the common sense answer is myopic referring to "The plural pronoun meaning 'you all'" (Algeo and Butcher, @heartspring), if the original meaning of (h)ye is ambiguous. So your 5) is a misinterpretation.
    – vectory
    Commented Sep 22, 2023 at 2:23
  • I am not invoking the law of the excluded middle; I am invoking a non sequitur, if anything. If I misunderstand your connections, please lay them out more clearly, e.g., like I did in my comment. If it’s really difficult to discern what your argument is, it’s not surprising that people misunderstand it.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Commented Sep 22, 2023 at 6:33

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