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Wordplay: The old “ye olde”

Wordplay is a regular column by editor and language writer James Harbeck in which he tastes and plays with English words and usages.Wordplay: The old "ye olde"

If you want to make something look, y’know, old and classy and stuff, what’s better than adding an e to the end of it? Think how much extra you pay to stay in a Crowne Plaza hotel than you would in a simple Crown Plaza. Cochrane, Alberta has a log-and-glass event space called Cochrane RancheHouse. And, of course, there are all these plain old olde things.

That’s where we crank up the antiquity another notch, with the word you have to blow the dust off every time you use it: ye. As in “ye olde candy shoppe.” And “as ye sow, so shall ye reap.

Only not every ye has the same meaning, nor is every occurrence of it an actual word. The ye in ye olde isn’t ye at all. The y isn’t y.

English used to have the letters ð and þ, which stood for sounds we now spell as th, as in this and thin. They mostly fell out of use during the medieval period, but a few words, such as þe (the) and þat (that), often kept them. They were reduced with the aid of superscripts: þe and þt. But when we got printing presses, the moveable type that came with them was also forged on the continent by speakers of languages that didn’t use those letters.

What was the closest letter? You might think it would be p or b, but the way þ was written in cursive was more open-topped and looked like a rakish y with an ascending first line. So y became the substitution, and the was often rendered as ye (often with the e right on top of the y). This became so well established it was done that way even in hand-carved inscriptions such as tombstones, where the carver could have used a proper þ—if he had known to do so.

So the ye in ye olde is really just the. But how about hear ye and so shall ye reap? This is part of what causes the confusion. The ye in ye olde might be its problem, but the ye in hear ye is you. Literally. It’s the old nominative form of you. Just as we have I and me, and she and her, we had ye and you. It happens to have fallen out of standard use over the years, gone from normal discourse by the time Shakespeare died, and gone from formal discourse before Churchill was born, but persisting in regional dialects. It’s as if the formal standard had come to be “Me gave it to her, but her didn’t want it.” Well, ye can still keep it if ye want to be olde style.

Now, what is up with all those e’s? Well, Old English had a lot of inflectional endings that wore down over time. They included such suffixes as –an, –en, and –um. These ended up reduced to an unstressed vowel during the Middle English period. The spelling of English was in flux at the time; scribes and, later, typesetters could make decisions about what letter to use to represent this minimal vowel. At times they used y or i, but in the end, e, the easiest one, prevailed. Over time, it stopped being pronounced, too. So we got all those silent e’s that make e the most common letter in English usage.

And when you’re a scribe paid by the letter, or a typesetter who needs to make the text fit the line, and these e’s are silent and seem to show up in random places, why not toss in extra ones here and there? And so a word that in Old English was eald—and transformed with the passage of the time into auld and aud and awd and old, and many other forms—could not avoid being olde occasionally.

Between then and now, some advocates of tidying up English spelling have had some minor success, and one of the things they prevailed in was removing most of the unetymological e’s from words. So all those unnecessary oldes became good old olds again. But when we want something to look old (and perhaps therefore classy), we herd towards that little mark of antiquity, the easy e. We see olde (but, except for in Scots, not auld or awd) and shoppe (but not schopp) and crowne (but not croun or crowune). And we see ranche, which really was spelled with that e at times in the 1800s, in spite of coming from the Spanish rancho.

And what about the missing space in RancheHouse? Aw, that’s just branding.

James Harbeck is a web editor, print designer, and trained linguist. Read his blog at sesquiotic.wordpress.com and articles at TheWeek.com.

This article was copy edited by Ana Trask.


1 Comment

  1. Tasha says:

    Very interesting! Thank you for the lesson. I’ve always wondered.

    Like

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