A Thorn in the Alphabet’s Side

This is a bastardized excerpt from an essay that I did for my English class (EN101) at GRCC in 2012.


About thirty years ago, I read a number of works by Anthony Burgess, an English novelist. In one of his novels, The Doctor is Sick, he writes, “’Ye Old Tea Shop is a solecism. The “Y” is a mistake for the Anglo-Saxon letter called thorn, which stood for “TH”.’” I was interested  in this for 2 reasons.

The first was that it hadn’t occurred to me that our alphabet was dynamic. I’d thought that since we use the same alphabet as the Romans that the alphabet was static. This made me curious about how the alphabet came to be and how it has changed.

The second reason was that the theta sound was a real pain for me. As a kid, I had a speech impediment that made it difficult for me to say the sound. At least, it was the hard theta sound that was difficult. “Think” and “throw” became “fink” and “frow”. The soft theta sounds in “this” and “that” weren’t problems.

Where’d the alphabet come from

I’ve since read about the origins of the alphabet. Alpha Beta by John Man provided a general overview of the origins of the alphabet. It describes how Semites working in Egypt around 2000 BCE borrowed Egyptian hieroglyphs and used them to represent the first sound of the word that they denoted. That is, the word used for a house started with a “B” sound so they used a simplified version of the hieroglyph for a house to represent the “B” sound. The Egyptians kept using their hieroglyphs but the Semites took this alphabet back to the Middle East.  Alpha Beta goes on to describe how this alphabet moved to other civilizations of the middle-east (Phoenicians, Hebrews, Arabians), to the Greeks, the Etruscans and the Romans.

While Alpha Beta focused on alphabets in general, David Sacks’ Letter Perfect tracked the transformations of each letter from Phoenicia to our current alphabet. An example from Letter Perfect is that our letter “A” started upside down compared to what we use now. That is, it resembled a current “V” with a horizontal bar in its middle. When the Phoenicians adopted the symbol, it looked like it had been rotated clockwise so that it pointed to the left. When the Greeks used it, it had been rotated once more so that it pointed to the top of the page. Alpha Beta also tells us that Latin had no need of a number of Greek/Etruscan letters, including the theta sound. (261) Some of these were discarded while others were re-purposed.

Sacks’ Letter Perfect also discussed transformations caused by the differences in spoken languages. The Phoenicians used their “A” to represent a clicking sound. The Greeks did not use this sound in their language so they didn’t need to represent it. This happened with other letters. Most Semite languages only used their alphabets to represent consonants. The Greeks added the innovation of using letters to also represent vowels. The Greeks reused the other letters that had been used for non-Greek sounds.

Later, Sacks tells us that while Greek and English had abundant use of the theta sound, the Latin language didn’t use it. Consequently, the Latins dropped the theta symbol. When Romans started borrowing Greek words, and the Greek’s theta sounds, they used the letter H as a modifier to the letter T.

Where’d this thorn thing come from?

Sacks also discussed the thorn character that Burgess mentioned that got me interested in all this. “English writing of the early Middle Ages included at least four letters that were not part of the Roman alphabet. These were four Anglo-Saxon signs which supplemented the traditional Roman letters, to capture Old English sounds not otherwise covered.” (308). Thorn (Þ þ) and eth (Ð, ð) were both used to represent the hard and soft theta sounds. Winn (Ƿ ƿ) was used to represent the sound that the W uses today. Romans used U for the W sound. The letter W wouldn’t be added to the Roman alphabet until after the 1400s. “Yogh (Ȝ ȝ) meant a breathy sound between “y” and “g”.” (308)

Where’d this thorn thing go?

The Thorn character transformed over the years so that the circle was no longer closed at the top. “’Þe Old Tea Shop” looked a lot more like “’Ye Old Tea Shop”.

“The use of the Anglo-Saxon letters would gradually cease after the Norman Conquest of England in A.D. 1066. The change came due to pressure from the Norman-educated clergy and teachers, who sought to give written English a more ‘proper’ Franco-Roman form.” (Letter Perfect 309)

There were a lot of other surprising transformations covered in Alpha Beta and Letter Perfect that I may write about in another post.


Works Cited

Burgess, Anthony. The Doctor Is Sick. New York: Norton, 1960. Print.

Man, John. Alpha Beta: How 26 Letters Shaped the Western World. New York: Wiley, 2000. Print.

Sacks, David. Letter Perfect: The Marvelous History of Our Alphabet from A to Z. New York: Broadway, 2004. Print.


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One Response to A Thorn in the Alphabet’s Side

  1. Pingback: eth (Ð, ð) | Stephen Squire

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