OLD-ENGLISH-L ArchivesArchiver > OLD-ENGLISH > 2005-05 > 1115035455
From: "John Barton" <>
Subject: Re: [OEL] W. G. Y. Pronunciation Changes
Date: Tue, 3 May 2005 00:04:15 +1200
In old English spelling, the sound 'th' is represented by the anglo-saxon
letter thorn; rather like a black-letter p. So (for example) 'The' was
spelt 'pe'. Later, scribes confused this with y, causing people to think
that, say, "Pe Olde Curiosity Shoppe" should be pronounced 'Ye...", quite
wrongly. In spite of the fact that it is so heard every day. Just as some
people think the town crier called out 'O Yes' instead of 'Oyer' or 'listen'
in Norman French. Similarly, anglo-saxon 'g' was mistaken by scribes for
yogh, which is like a 3.
This is still apparent in some words, e.g. the Scots surname 'Menzies',
where the z is a mistake and should be pronounced as a 'y'. From the 13th
century, yogh was by some scribes wholly discarded for y or gh; a few texts
have yh. 'Ye' as plural of 'thee' in phrase such as 'God rest ye merry' was
never I think from pe. As a consonant, 'y' began to occur as a variant of
yogh about 1250 AD. One problem with early manuscripts was the gothic
script, in which the strokes (minims) of letters such as m,n,u,v,and i all
merged; 'i' was never dotted, there were no curves in the angular letters,
and a word such as 'minimum' would come out as ^^^^^^^^^^^^. So it was
useful to spell words with 'y' instead of 'i', and break them up into more
As a numeral, 'i' was one. So sevenpence would be vii d. To prevent someone
adding an extra i, or in case the edge of the document frayed, the final i
was given a tail - vij. In Tudor times, this was carried over into print for
the letter 'i', which could (confusingly) stand for either the sound 'ye' or
'dge'; and from then, long i, or i with a tail, was given a new name, 'jay',
which later still became a new letter of the alphabet. Just about everyone
except lawyers was pleased when black-letter fonts went out, and Roman type
and arabic numerals came in.
All these changes in the alphabet cause mistakes and 'howlers'; one is the
Shakespeare character 'Iago' in Othello; this is spelt 'Jago' in the 4th
folio, but a commentator called Theobald, seeing it as 'Iago' in the earlier
folios, decided it was a mistake and changed it back, pronuncing it in three
syllables, and the error has remained!
"THE OXFORD CODE"
----- Original Message -----
Sent: Monday, May 02, 2005 6:26 PM
Subject: [OEL] W. G. Y. Pronunciation Changes
> I'm told that the old letter G often became a Y over time.
> > Or the old W became a G. This is difficult, isn't it?
> > Gary
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