Thorny days

The Old English letter þ (known as thorn) played a central role in my posting on a “frugal typographer” who proposed in 1929 to save space by replacing the word the by þ. Now thorn is the subject of a New Yorker blog piece by editor Mary Norris: “The Thorn Word” (note play on The Thorn Birds).

(Hat tip to George Schober.)

Norris’s posting begins:

A rare excitement ran through the The New Yorkers copy department last week when it was discovered that a line of Middle English poetry quoted in a piece by Peter Hessler about standing in police lineups had a thorn in it. Usually a thorn, like a splinter, is something you want to remove, with tweezers, or maybe a sterilized needle, but this thorn was something we wanted desperately to insert.

Thorn is an obsolete letter from the Anglo-Saxon alphabet representing the sound we now write as “th”: it looks like the letter “p” with the vertical stroke extending above as well as below the protuberance. In fact, a thorn looks pretty much like a thorn, as in one of those prickly things on the stem of a rose. You will not find it on your keyboard unless you are J. R. R. Tolkien. I hadn’t seen one since graduate school—which was exactly the context in which Peter Hessler was using it, in a throwaway reference to “Gawain and the Green Knight.”

The accompanying illustration:

Now there’s some confusion on labels here, starting with “the sound we now write as “th” ” — the problem being that modern English has two distinct phonemes, a voiceless fricative /θ/ (as in thick and thorn) and the corresponding voiced fricative /ð/ (as in the and this), both written th. The functional load of the distinction isn’t very great, though there are near-minimal pairs like breath /brɛθ/ vs. breathe /brið/ and even a minimal pair in ether /iθǝr/ vs. either /iðǝr/.

Things were different in Old English. There was no phonemic distinction; instead, the sounds [θ] and [ð] were in complementary distribution, with the second occurring as the intervocalic variant of the first; similarly for [f] and [v], and for [s] and [z]. These facts were encoded in Old English orthography, where there was only one symbol for each of these pairs: þ  f  v.

But those days are long past. The conditioning factors for the distribution of the allophones were lost through phonetic change (though these factors are still represented in some historical spellings, like breath vs. breathe, where the second spelling represents a final unaccented vowel that was lost through phonetic change), and borrowings from other languages (like ether, from Greek, with intervocalic [θ] instead of [ð], and zoo, also from Greek, with non-intervocalic [z] instead of [s]) put the sounds into contrast. But the same spelling continued to be used for /θ/ and /ð/, so that modern speakers are inclined to think of them as “the same”, indeed as “the same sound”.

But how to refer to these distinct sounds (and phonemes)? There are many (inconsistent) proposals. For instance, some writers use thorn as the name of the voiceless fricative, and theta or eth as the name of the voiced counterpart — a bad terminological choice, since both of these names would be pronounced with /θ/ rather than/ð/.

One consistent scheme builds on the conventional names of the fricatives /f/ and /s/: /ɛf/ and /ɛs/, in orthography eff and ess. That can then be extended to /θ/ and /ð/: in the names /ɛθ/ and /ɛð/, in orthography eth and edh (similarly for the fricatives /ʃ/ (as in rush) and /ʒ/ (and in rouge): names /ɛʃ/ and /ɛʒ/, in orthography esh and ezh).

(Notice that to be clear about these matters, we need to distinguish, as in Through the Looking-Glass, between names and what the names are called.)

(Yes, I know, on this scheme, /v/ and /z/ ought to have the names /ɛv/ and /ɛz/, in orthography ev and ez, but the conventional letter-names /vi/ and /zi/ (in orthography vee and zee) take precedence.)

(One final thorny note, from the Wikipedia page:

Thorn in the form of a “Y” survives to this day [in modern English] in pseudo-archaic usages, particularly the stock prefix “Ye olde”. The definite article spelled with “Y” for thorn is often jocularly or mistakenly pronounced /jiː/ or mistaken for the archaic nominative case of the second person plural familiar, “ye”.)

4 Responses to “Thorny days”

  1. Greg Lee Says:

    So the objection to calling it thorn is that if the name of the corresponding voiced sound is made theta or eth, then the voiced sound has a name without the voiced sound in it. Do I have that straight?

    If we called it thorn, then we could consistently call /h/ horn.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Sorry if I wasn’t clear. The objection isn’t to calling the voiceless fricative thorn, but to calling the voiced counterpart theta or eth.

  2. the ridger Says:

    Of course, other pairs are tee/dee or pee/bee, or even gee/kay, so perhaps worrying that ess/zee and eff/vee don’t fit the esh/ezh or eth/edh paradigm isn’t very worthwhile.

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