The “Ye” here is not the “ye” as in “Judge not, that ye (you) be not judged”, but is rather a remnant of the letter “thorn” or “þorn” (Þ, þ). The letter thorn was used in Old Norse, Old English-Middle English, Gothic, and Icelandic alphabets and is pronounced more or less like the digraph “th”. Not surprisingly, this letter gradually died out in most areas (all but Iceland), being replaced by “th”.
Around the 14th century, the use of “th” started to gain in popularity. At the same time, the way the letter thorn was written gradually changed to look a lot like the letter “Y” instead of “Þ”. Because of this shift in written form of the letter, combined with the advent of the printing press in the 15th century many of which had no letter thorn, printers chose to use the letter “Y” as a substitute for the letter thorn.
So you’ll occasionally see in manuscripts from that period things like “yat” or “Yt” for “that” and, of course, “the” abbreviated “Ye” or “ye”. Despite the use of the letter “y” here, it was still understood by readers to be pronounced like thorn or the digraph “th”.
Eventually, all but the “Ye” popularly died out in favor of their “th” forms. Later, even the “ye” went the way of the Dodo bird, excepting being used in the names of trendy sounding old stores the English speaking world over.
Thanks to the Bible, most people are more familiar with the second plural pronoun “ye”, which is pronounced with a “y” sound. As they are spelled the same, most people naturally assume the two words are perhaps the same with similar pronunciation. Although, if one stops to think about it “You Olde Coffee Shop” is kind of an awkward name for a shop.
As illustrated, “Ye” as in “Ye Olde Bookstore” is a completely different word using the letter thorn and should just be pronounced exactly like “The”. Of course, this doesn’t sound nearly as archaic, so not exactly what the store owners are likely going for. But that can’t be helped.
- It has been speculated by some linguists that we all pronounce “thou” wrong as well (as “thow”), when it should perhaps be pronounced similar to “you”, so “thu”.
- “Thou” comes from the Latin “tu” and is a cognate of the Middle Dutch “du”, Old Norse and Gothic “thu”, and Old Irish “tú”.
- As “thou” started to be replaced with “ye” (as in “you”), for a time “ye” was used when referring to a superior person, and “thou” was used when referring to an inferior person; or at the least to be used informally, while “ye” and “you” would be used formally. The French (and in parts of England) also used “thou” to imply intimacy or friendship.
- This transition from “thou, thy, and thee” to having implications on class and relationship, often today from lack of understanding this results in loss of subtly in old works, or confusion at the usage of words when the subtly is explicitly stated. For example, in Le Miserables where Marius is speaking to Eponine and says (translated): “What do you mean?” Most today would see no problem with him stating this, yet this offends Eponine. She then laments, “Ah! you used to call me thou!” He then replies, “Well, then, what dost thou mean?”
- A modern work which apparently uses this sense of intimacy or friendship of “thou/thy/thee” is Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, when Darth Vader states “What is thy bidding, my master?” to the Emperor.
- While you may have never consciously thought about it, there are two ways to pronounce “the” that are commonly used and both are used in distinct grammatical situations. “The” as in “thee” is used when the following word begins with a vowel sound, such as “‘thee’ end” or “‘thee’ hour”. It also can be used when you’re wanting to stress a specific word like “Are you saying you once dated ‘thee’ Kevin Spacey?” In all other cases, you use “the” as in “thuh”. Most people use “thuh” and “thee” unconsciously; in case you’re one of those, now you know why you do it.
- Besides being used in the name of coffee shops, “ye” is also used today as the internet top level domain for the country of Yemen.
- The letter thorn still survives today in Icelandic, being the 30th letter of their alphabet. Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing it added back into the English alphabet, as a single letter for the “th” sound is more succinct and makes more sense. However, then I’d have to learn to use a new keyboard and then we’d need an alphabet song modification, so… hmmmm.
Expand for References