I just finished reading The Adventure of English, by Melvyn Bragg. He authored and hosted an eight-part television series by the same name. The book tells the same story, but in more detail. The dust-jacket summary starts this way:

English is the collective work of millions of people throughout the ages. It is a democratic, ever-changing, and ingenious in its assimilation of other cultures. Today, English runs through the heart of world finance, medicine and the Internet, and it is understood by nearly two billion people across the world. And it seems set to go on. Yet it was very nearly wiped out in its early years.

In this thoroughly researched and ground-breaking book, Melvyn Bragg shows us the remarkable story of the English language, from its beginnings around A.D. 500 as a minor guttural Germanic dialect to its current position as a truly established global language. Along the way its colourful story takes in a host of characters, locations, and events.

The book is fantastic for its depth. The television program is fantastic because we can hear how the words and languages sound. I highly recommend them both.

In an early chapter, Bragg lists the Old English alphabet as it was in the seventh century A.D. and it’s certainly not what we’re used to.

A æ b c d e f g h i k l m n o p r s t þ ð u uu y

It’s two letters short of our current 26, but there are some notable differences. The book includes many Old English quotations, and sometimes, the intended sounds of the unfamiliar letters are difficult to fathom. Because of this, a modern English translation follows every quote.

I quickly noticed that the letter þ was a replacement for our ‘th’ in almost every instance it appeared. The letter, called thorn, represented both sounds (voiced and unvoiced) that we now use ‘th’ to represent. I thought it odd that we should lose this letter. Having a glyph to represent a single sound seems logical. Further, the sound that our current ‘th’ represents isn’t really a combination of the sounds the two letters make in sequence. So why did we lose thorn?

Unfortunately, I’m not entirely sure. According to the Wikipedia entry on thorn, two things were happening during the 14th century. One was that the shape of thorn itself was changing. It had lost its ascender and started to look like wynn, ƿ, another lost letter which is the precursor to our ‘w.’ At the same time, the use of ‘th’ in place of thorn was growing, though the reason is not explained.

Those intent on using thorn had further difficulty when movable type became popular because the character sets, largely manufactured in Germany at the time, did not include thorn. The continued evolution of thorn’s glyph had it looking more and more like ‘y’ so many printers substituted that letter in thorn’s place.

At the time, ye was a Middle English word in common use. Although it’s now archaic, it was the second-person, plural, personal pronoun. It is the plural of thou. We now use you and not ye, but it was a real word pronounced just as you’d expect. The problem was, a printer who preferred thorn over ‘th’ would set the as ye. This is the origin of ridiculous signs like, “Ye Olde Booke Shoppe.” The ye in this sense was never pronounced as it’s spelt. It was always voiced the same as our the.

Only modern Icelandic has retained thorn to this day. Even there, it is only used for the voiceless ‘th,’ as in thin. Eth, ð, another former English letter, represents the voiced ‘th’ (as in the). If it weren’t for the Icelandic usage, thorn would probably not appear among the characters available for use on today’s computers. I’m pleased it is available however, because it’s a part of our history, and because it is much easier to write about!