“Ye” in Names Like “Ye Olde Coffee Shoppe” Should Be Pronounced “The”, Not “Yee”

Today I found out the “ye” as in “Ye Olde Coffee Shoppe” should be pronounced “the”.

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”.  As such, 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.

This is why 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 the respective “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 naturally assume the two words are the same. (Of course, “You Olde Coffee Shop” would be kind of an awkward name for a shop.)

In the end, “ye” as in “Ye Olde Bookstore” is a completely different word using the letter thorn and should just be pronounced exactly like “The”.  This doesn’t sound nearly as archaic, so not exactly what the store owners are likely going for, but that can’t be helped.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Another common mispronunciation is “Seuss”, as in Dr. Suess. This should actually be pronounced “Zoice” (rhymes with “voice”), being a Bavarian name (after Theodore Geisel’s mother’s maiden name).  However, due to the fact that most Americans pronounced it incorrectly as “Soose”, Geisel later gave in and stopped correcting people, even quipping that the mispronunciation was a good thing because it is “advantageous for an author of children’s books to be associated with—Mother Goose.”
  • 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.
  • Today the common ignorance of this transition from “thou, thy, and thee” to having implications on class and relationship often results in loss of understanding of certain subtleties in old works or confusion at the usage of words when the subtly is explicitly stated. For example, in Les 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” naturally without ever having noticed the distinction; in case you’re one of those, now you know why. 🙂
  • 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.
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  • Since the word following “ye” in “Ye Olde Coffee Shoppe” begins with a vowel sound, would one say “thuh” or “thee” before “Olde Coffee Shoppe?”

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Craig: “Thee”

    • How would you say “the” in “the old”? Same way. You’d only lengthen it (THEE Kevin Spacey!) to emphasise the word. Lots of words sound different when emphasised.

  • Well everyone know’s it’s pronounced the not yee well unless you’r american of course then you don’t have a clue about anything unless its cheese burgers and baseball

    • I’m not sure why you felt it necessary to use this platform for a gratuitous insult against Americans. Suffice it to say, though, that we are not all ignorant morons. Some of us even understand how to spell simple words like “you’re”. Further, we realize that an apostrophe is completely unnecessary in the word “knows”. Finally, we are made aware that if we neglect the use of commas and periods, our writing becomes garbled and senseless. I suspect that’s a lesson you have yet to learn.
      Have a good day, Chicken Feet.

  • Doesn’t the Star Wars story take place “a long time ago”?

    Although thou/thy/thee may only be used in this one instance throughout the films, it’s a “modern work” set many years in the past, like many historical novels or movies. It’s not Darth Vader c. 1980 saying “thy” to someone. Right?

  • In Windows I use the capital Thorn to make a smiley face with the tongue out:


    The code is Alt-0222, holding down the ALT key, pressing 0222 on the Numeric Keypad (not the numerals at the top of the keyboard), and releasing the ALT key. In email I make the eyes blue, the nose pinkish or orangish, and the tongue red (or whatever colors you choose).

    There’s another character for the “th” sound, the Eth: Ð (Capital) and ð (lower case).

    The codes for Eth are ALT-0208 for the capital eth (Ð) and LT-0240 for the lower case eth (ð).

    Both were used in Old English for both voiced and voiceless “th” sounds. See Wikipedia for details. Use “charmap.exe” to find other ALT codes (like ALT-0233 for é if you need to write French once in a while).

  • “Thou” does NOT come from Latin “tu”, Old English inherited it from Proto Germanic *þū, and it’s a lot more closely related to Middle Dutch “du” than any of the other mentioned, seeing how Dutch and English are both West Germanic languages, although Gothic and Old Norse aren’t too far off either.

    Proto Germanic *þū, Latin “tu” and Irish “tú” all ultimately derive from Proto Indo-European *túh₂, but independently from each other.

    English does however have one pronoun that it has borrowed rather than inherited, and it’s “they”, including the inflected forms “them”, “their” and “theirs”. It was done back in Old English times, and it got it from a much closer relative than Latin, namely Old Norse.

  • The solution to the different “th” sounds isn’t adding another letter. The pair “dh” is used in some systems and scripts to phonetically represent the hard “th” sound (e.g. mother), so there’s no reason it couldn’t happen now. Use “th” and “dh”, simple, and it solves the problem.
    Other languages dictate standards and change spellings of their entire languages (e.g. French, simplified Chinese), why couldn’t English make one simple change? Unfortunately it will never catch on, probably because it makes sense.

  • From the notes: In acting class, a classmate said “Thee” instead of “thu” and was promptly demonized by the teacher, who said no one says “Thee” in common usage. Lost a full grade for that. Seemed excessive to me, but I do agree with her. “Thee” sounds weird.

    • Daven Hiskey

      @Rob: Funny enough, when I was in the third grade, my teacher penalized me for using the “thuh” pronunciation. She only used “thee” and I refused to acquiesce. I lived in Oklahoma at the time, so maybe it was a Southern thing. 🙂

  • Thanks for a great article, Daven. When I arrived at your fifth bullet point, the way you had arranged “thou/thy/thee” put my in mind of the rappping giant in “Jack and the Beanstalk”. If you change its order to “thee/thy/thou” and follow it up with a “them” then it sounds very similar to Fe Fi Fo Fum – a cultural artefact featured in many english-language tales including “Have with you to Saffron-walden” (1596) to “King Lear” (1605). It makes me wonder it it’s not the remnant of some old pronunciation guide for ancient Brits struggling with the correct use of ever-shifting English?

    What sayest thou?

  • “Le Miserables” should be “Les Miserables” (plural).