Thorn or þorn (Þ, þ) is a letter in the Old English, Gothic, Old Norse, Old Swedish, and modern Icelandic alphabets, as well as some dialects of Middle English. It was also used in medieval Scandinavia, but was later replaced with the digraph th, except in Iceland, where it survives. The letter originated from the rune ᚦ in the Elder Fuþark and was called thorn in the Anglo-Saxon and thorn or thurs in the Scandinavian rune poems. It is similar in appearance to the archaic Greek letter sho (ϸ), although the two are historically unrelated.
It is pronounced as either a voiceless dental fricative [θ] or the voiced counterpart of it [ð]. However, in modern Icelandic, it is pronounced as a laminal voiceless alveolar non-sibilant fricative [θ̠], similar to th as in the English word thick, or a (usually apical) voiced alveolar non-sibilant fricative [ð̠], similar to th as in the English word the. Modern Icelandic usage generally excludes the latter, which is instead represented with the letter eth ⟨Ð, ð⟩; however, [ð̠] may occur as an allophone of /θ̠/, and written ⟨þ⟩, when it appears in an unstressed pronoun or adverb after a voiced sound.
The letter thorn was used for writing Old English very early on, as was ð; unlike ð, thorn remained in common use through most of the Middle English period. Both letters were used for the phoneme /θ/, sometimes by the same scribe. This sound was regularly realised in Old English as the voiced fricative [ð] between voiced sounds, but either letter could be used to write it; the modern use of [ð] in phonetic alphabets is not the same as the Old English orthographic use. A thorn with the ascender crossed (Ꝥ) was a popular abbreviation for the word that.
Middle and Early Modern English
The modern digraph th began to grow in popularity during the 14th century; at the same time, the shape of thorn grew less distinctive, with the letter losing its ascender (becoming similar in appearance to the old wynn (Ƿ, ƿ), which had fallen out of use by 1300, and to ancient through modern P, p). In some hands, such as that of the scribe of the unique mid-15th-century manuscript of The Boke of Margery Kempe, it ultimately became indistinguishable from the letter Y. By this stage, th was predominant and the use of thorn was largely restricted to certain common words and abbreviations. In William Caxton's pioneering printed English, it is rare except in an abbreviated the, written with a thorn and a superscript E. This was the longest-lived use, though the substitution of Y for thorn soon became ubiquitous, leading to the common 'ye', as in 'Ye Olde Curiositie Shoppe'. One major reason for this was that Y existed in the printer's type fonts that were imported from Germany or Italy, while thorn did not. The word was never pronounced with a "y" sound, though, even when so written. The first printing of the King James Version of the Bible in 1611 used the Y form of thorn with a superscript E in places such as Job 1:9, John 15:1, and Romans 15:29. It also used a similar form with a superscript T, which was an abbreviated that, in places such as 2 Corinthians 13:7. All were replaced in later printings by the or that, respectively.
The following were abbreviations during Middle and Early Modern English using the letter thorn:
– (þͤ) a Middle English abbreviation for the word the – (þͭ) a Middle English abbreviation for the word that – (þͧ) a rare Middle English abbreviation for the word thou (which was written early on as þu or þou)
- (yᷤ) an Early Modern English abbreviation for the word this
– (yͤ) an Early Modern English abbreviation for the word the – (yͭ) an Early Modern English abbreviation for the word that
Thorn in the form of a "Y" survives in pseudo-archaic uses, particularly the stock prefix "Ye olde". The definite article spelt with "Y" for thorn is often jocularly or mistakenly pronounced /jiː/ ("yee") or mistaken for the archaic nominative case of the second person plural pronoun, "ye", as in "hear ye!". In fact, the y in the pronoun would have been spelled with a yogh, ȝe, rather than a y.
The Icelandic language is the only living language to retain the letter thorn (in Icelandic; þ, pronounced þoddn, [θ̠ɔtn̥] or þordn [θ̠ɔrtn̥]). The letter is the 30th in the Icelandic alphabet; it is transliterated to th when it cannot be reproduced and never appears at the end of a word. Its pronunciation has not varied much, but before the introduction of the eth character, þ was used to represent the sound [ð], as in the word "verþa", which is spelt verða (meaning "to become") in modern Icelandic or normalized orthography. Þ was originally taken from the runic alphabet and is described in the First Grammatical Treatise:
Staf þann er flestir menn kalla þ þann kalla ég af því heldur þe að þá er það atkvæði hans í hverju máli sem eftir lifir nafnsins er úr er tekinn raddarstafur úr nafni hans, sem alla hefi ég samhljóðendur samda í það mark nú sem ég reit snemma í þeirra umræðu. Skal þ standa fyrri í stafrófi en titull þó að ég hafi síðar umræðu um hann því að hann er síðast í fundinn, en af því fyrr um titul að hann var áður í stafrófi og ég lét hann þeim fylgja í umræðu eru honum líkir þarfnast sína jartein. Höfuðstaf þe-sins rita ég hvergi nema í vers upphafi því að hans atkvæði má eigi æxla þótt hann standi eftir raddarstaf í samstöfun.— First Grammarian, First Grammatical Treatise
|Unicode name||LATIN CAPITAL LETTER THORN||LATIN SMALL LETTER THORN|
|Character entity reference||Þ||þ|
Various forms of thorn were used for medieval scribal abbreviations:
- Pétursson (1971:?), cited in Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996:145)
- Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996), pp. 144–145.
- Einarsson, Stefán (1949). Icelandic: Grammar, Texts, Glossary. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press. pp. 22–23.
- "ye-olde - Definition, pictures, pronunciation and usage notes | Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary at OxfordLearnersDictionaries.com". www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com. Retrieved 2019-12-13.
- "ICELANDIC BGN/PCGN 1968 Agreement" (PDF).
- Gordon, E.V. (1927). An Introduction to Old Norse. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 268. ISBN 0-19-811184-3.
- First Grammatical Treatise, eText (modernized spelling ed.), NO: Old.
- Everson, Michael; Baker, Peter; Emiliano, António; Grammel, Florian; Haugen, Odd Einar; Luft, Diana; Pedro, Susana; Schumacher, Gerd; Stötzner, Andreas (2006-01-30). "L2/06-027: Proposal to add Medievalist characters to the UCS" (PDF).
- Freeborn, Dennis (1992) From Old English to Standard English. London: Macmillan
- Ladefoged, Peter; Maddieson, Ian (1996). The Sounds of the World's Languages. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 978-0-631-19815-4.
- Pétursson, Magnus (1971), "Étude de la réalisation des consonnes islandaises þ, ð, s, dans la prononciation d'un sujet islandais à partir de la radiocinématographie", Phonetica, 33: 203–216, doi:10.1159/000259344
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