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…On þe history of þe letters

Posted by Steve on August 9, 2008

Looking þrough some old class notes of mine, I found a frequent idiosyncrasy: to save time, I would often write using edh (ð) instead of “th”. For instance, a note on Shakespeare’s Scottish Play might read, “Macbeð starts Ðane of Cawdor”. It was also a common symbol for variables in my notes, since I quit using my professor’s symbology as it was too much of a hassle to try remembering eleven different meanings for P and rho every semester (not to mention trying to distinguish P, p, Rho, and rho!).

In so doing, I used a letter ðat’s been dead for centuries. Heck, I’d never even heard of it until I found out, years ago, ðat in Rush’s “By-Tor and Ðe Snowdog”, a “sign of eth” isn’t someðing Neil Peart made up, as “eth” is a more common alternative to “edh”, which is how ð-character’s name is spelled out in present-day English.

I looked up ðis character some more (and wrote a poem about it ðat got printed in my high school’s poetry-book at year’s end), and found out ðat ðe “voiced dental fricative” (Official Linguistspeak for “th”-sound) in English has an interesting history.

Once upon a time, a runic letter þ (thorn) had sole custody of “th”-sound in Germanic & Scandinavian languages. Along came an interloper, ð (edh) when somebody took a slanty Latin “d” and gave it a slash. In Old English, ð and þ were used kind of interchangeably, until all 5-dozen literate people quit using ð very much. A little while later, some genius had a bright idea: “Why write a sound using just one letter when you can write using two letters????”. My guess is he worked for an ink-seller. So þ quit getting used much too except for short, common words like “þe”…. and eventually, Wikipedia tells us, got transmuted into “Y” because of sloppy handwriting and imported type characters… so “Ye” in place of “the” in tourist-trap fudge shop names stems from that.

Do I have a point? Yes: I like ð. I do not like Russian imperialism, so perhaps ðe war in Georgia may be ruminated upon soon.

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