The “Ye” In Archaic Names Like “Ye Olde Shoppe” Is Derived From A Middle English Symbol Called A?
Unbeknownst to many people, the “Ye” that appears in the names of purposely archaic locations like “Ye Olde Armorie” at the local renaissance festival, is not pronounced “yee” as in “bee”, let alone with any “y” sound at all, but should actually be pronounced like the English article “the”, as in “The Olde Armorie”.
How exactly did such a strange spelling come about? Like all good jaunts into the history of English, it’s a sprinkling of organic language development over time and a sprinkling of happenstance. In Old English, some dialects of Middle English, Gothic, Old Norse (runic alphabet), and persisting in modern Icelandic alphabets, you’ll find a symbol, þ, called a “thorn”. In Old English and Middle English, the symbol stood for the “th” sound—as found in “thick”, “the”, and “there”—but was later replaced by the modern digraph “th”.
So where does “y” come into play? There was a period of time where the thorn symbol was still in use, but its shape grew less distinctive with the letter losing its ascender. As it started looking more like “ƿ” and less like þ—it was easy to substitute a “y” for the “ƿ” since the modified thorn symbol of the day looked a whole lot like a “y” with a closed top (and in many fonts the two were nearly indistinguishable).
Another reason for the shift was that “y” existed in the printer’s type fonts imported from Germany and Italy, while thorn did not. In short order, the substitution became ubiquitous in English printing and “ye” as the article “the” was permanently cemented into the history of the English language with the 1611 printing of the Kings James Version of the Bible, where it appeared frequently in a very widely distributed printed work.
Lest you think that every instance of “ye” is being said incorrectly, however, know that there is an appropriate time to yell “ye” as in “bee” at a renaissance festival. While “ye”, the article, should be pronounced as “the” (unless your goal is to ham it up by saying it incorrectly), “ye” as in the archaic second person plural pronoun is pronounced with a long vowel—the “ye” in “All hope abandon, ye who enter here!” should be pronounced like “yee”.
Image courtesy of The Simpsons/20th Century Fox.