We’ve all come across, at one point or another, the use of ye in things like Ye Olde Shoppe or Ye Olde Café, whether it’s used ironically or sincerely to create a sense of Merry England. While it’s clear that ye is being used as the, it’s not clear why and it’s certainly not known that ye isn’t actually a separate word from the at all, just an age-old misspelling.

Firstly, ye as a pronoun is a bona fide word and distinct from the ye of ye olde. That’s the ye of ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ and, as you would expect, is just an older word for the second person pronoun; one person was thou or thee and a group of people were you or ye.

The ye used as a definite article is quite different and it dates back to the 16th century. Before that time, we used to write the ‘th’ sound not with two letters put together but with one singular letter: þ or ‘thorn’ as it was called. In fact, we had two symbols for ‘th’, þ was the soft sound like the ‘th’ in ‘thin’ and ð, or ‘eth’, was the harder sound like the ‘th’ in ‘this’. These old symbols came from Germanic runes whereas the modern ‘th’ comes from French.

Although the French ‘th’ version was being used alongside ‘þ’ from the 14th century, when the printing press was invented, the printers preferred to use ‘þ’ basically because it saved space on the page.

However, the metal type used in early printing presses actually came from Germany and Italy, where the letter ‘þ’ didn’t exist. Instead they had to substitute ‘y’ because they figured it looked similar enough. The became ye and also that became yt, both of which can be found in manuscripts until as late as the 18th century.

Ye was revived in the 19th century as an intentional antiquarianism and ye olde was already being mocked by 1896.

So all in all, even though Ye Olde Shoppe might look like it’s supposed to say ‘yee oldie shoppie’, it’s actually just a cutesy way of saying ‘the old shop’.



2 thoughts on “Ye

  1. Pingback: What did Caxton do for us? | Word Stories

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