The old “ye olde”

Originally published on BoldFace, the blog of the Toronto branch of Editors Canada

If you want to make something look, y’know, old, and classy and stuff, what’s better than adding an e to the end of it? Think how much extra you pay to stay in a Crowne Plaza hotel than you would in a simple Crown Plaza. Cochrane, Alberta, has a log-and-glass event space called Cochrane RancheHouse. And of course there are all these plain old olde things.

And that’s where we cranky up the antiquity another notch, with the word you have to blow the dust off every time you use it: ye. As in ye olde candy shoppe. And As ye sow, so shall ye reap. And perhaps, at the RancheHouse, ye haw.*

Only those aren’t the same word. And the ye in ye olde isn’t ye at all. The y isn’t y.

English used to have the letters ð and þ, which stood for sounds we now spell as th as in this and thin. They mostly fell out of use during the medieval period, but a few words often kept them, such as þe (the) and þat (that). They would be reduced with the aid of superscripts, like þe and þt. But when we got printing presses, the moveable type that came with them was forged on the continent by speakers of languages that didn’t use those letters.

What was the closest letter? You might think it would be p or b, but the way þ was written in cursive was more open topped and looked like a rakish y with an ascending first line. So y became the substitution, and the was often rendered as ye (often with the e right on top of the y). This became so well established it was done that way even in hand-carved inscriptions such as tombstones, where the carver could have used a proper þ – if he had known to do so.

So. Ye as in ye olde is really just the. But how about hear ye and so shall ye reap? This is part of what causes the confusion. The ye in ye olde might be their problem, but the ye in hear ye is you.

Literally. It’s the old nominative form of you. Just as we have I and me, and she and her, we had ye and you. It happens to have fallen out of standard use over the years, gone from normal discourse by the time Shakespeare died, and gone from formal discourse before Churchill was born, but persisting in regional dialects. It’s as if the formal standard had come to be “Me gave it to her, but her didn’t want it.”

Well, ye can still keep it if ye want to be olde style. And, now, what is up with all those e’s? Well, Old English had a lot of inflectional endings that wore down over time. They included such suffixes as –an, –en, and –um. These ended up reduced to an unstressed vowel during the Middle English period. The spelling of English was in flux at the time, and scribes and, later, typesetters could make decisions about what letter to use to represent this minimal vowel. At times they used y or i, but in the end e, the easiest one, prevailed. And over time it stopped being pronounced, too. So we got all those silent e’s that make e the most common letter in English usage.

And when you’re a scribe paid by the letter, or a typesetter who needs to make the text fit the line, and these e’s are silent and seem to show up in random places, why not toss in extra ones here and there? And so a word that in Old English was eald and came with the changes of the time to be auld and aud and awd and old – and many other forms – could not avoid being olde occasionally.

Between then and now, some advocates of tidying up English spelling have had some minor success, and one of the things they prevailed in was removing most of the unetymological e’s from words. So all those unnecessary oldes became good old olds again. But when we want something to look old (and perhaps therefore classy), we herd towards that little mark of antiquity, the easy e. We see old (but, except for in Scots, not auld or awd) and shoppe (but not schopp) and crowne (but not croun or crowune). And we see ranche, which really was spelled with that e at times in the 1800s in spite of coming from Spanish rancho.

And what about the missing space in RancheHouse? Aw, that’s just branding. You know, as they do to cattle at ranch houses.


*Calgarians, please do not write to me telling me that it should be yahoo, not yeehaw. I know. I was making a funny.

2 responses to “The old “ye olde”

  1. Pingback: The old “ye olde” — Sesquiotica – markstephenraymentsmith

  2. Vincent Colin Burke

    “Ye” has often been used in some parts of Newfoundland as the plural of “you.”

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