þ (upper case Þ) is the original symbol for
the th sound in English. It is descended from a Runic
letter of uncertain origin.

When Anglo-Saxon Monks began to write their language
in the Latin alphabet they used the corresponding Latin
letters for their sounds to the extent that there were
suitable Latin letters. However, for the th sound and
the w sound Latin letters were not available. Since the
Anglo Saxons could already write their language in the
Runic alphabet, they simply moved the corresponding Runic
letters over to supplement the Latin alphabet. Thus for
many years the w was written with a Runic letter resembling
an upper case p and the th was written with þ.

For þe remainder of this article þe th sound will be written with þe þ.

Þe rune symbol for w can be seen on many coins of
þe Anglo-Saxons and even after þe Norman Conquest because
w was a common element of names, but it faded out soon after,
being replaced by uu which eventually became w (note þe name
double u).

Þ lasted much longer, alþough th was always an alternative
for þe monkishly inclined. Any large University Library will
have facsimiles of early Chaucer manuscripts where þ is
everywhere, as well as oþer manuscripts wiþ þ.

Deaþ of þe Þorn

What doomed þe þorn was þe unavailablility of printing
technology in Britain. Caxton, þe first British printer, had
to buy his types in Flanders where þere was already a printing
industry. Unfortunately, þe Flemish language did not have þe
th sound, and þus did not have a piece of type for þe þorn.
Hence Caxton used þe th variant for þe sound and later printers
followed his model.

Þe ghost of þe þorn remains, however, in some highly specialized
places. When a store is attempting to be self consciously quaint it
often puts a sign out front þat reads someþing like

Ye Olde Button Shoppe.

Þe Y in Ye in þis sign is þe last living remnant of þe þorn
in English. (It was never pronounced Yee in spite of what people have
told you). In its last stages of decay þe þorn character came to
resemble þe letter y and when knowledge of its true function disappeared
þe unrecognizable letter was þought to actually be a y.

Why do we still have þe character in þe character set?

Alþough þe þ has disappeared in English, it is still fully functional
in þe writing of Icelandic. Hence þe character continues in character sets
for þe benefit of Icelanders, and is þus available to all of us to reinstate
into English.

Last updated 13 April 2005 by William Schulz (wcs@odin.math.nau.edu)

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