Friday, August 23, 2013

What is the "th" in "the" called?

That was the clue in a crossword I was doing recently. (If you do crosswords while flying on Southwest Airlines and it's still August, 2013 when you read this, I am hear by serving you with a SPOILER ALERT). Let's put a picture here so that you have a chance to avoid this if so inclined.

(No longer the Southwest uniform, if it ever was.)

 To be honest, I had to maneuver my way around with all the other clues. Originally, I came up with something like "girrapa". However, eventually I learned that the correct answer was "digraph". Correct, but no wiser, I had to look this up.

A digraph is (most often) when a written alphabet has to use two letters to get across one sound, because it hasn't created a single letter for it. Mostly, this would be two letters that separately convey different sounds, like "t" and "h" do when not "th" or "c" and "h" do when not starting off words like "chair" or finishing off words like "beach".

There are plenty of other types of digraphs, though, and we don't even have to leave English to find them. The rh in "rhetoric" or, to be less high-falutin', "rhino" still just sounds like "r". Usually, these don't come about through mere whimsy, though. They represent traces of older ways of speaking, different dialects, or even attempts to write down other languages. Typically, digraphs become conventions of writing. Someone hits on a way to do it, and it becomes standardized.

There's a lot more that could be said about digraphs--as I type this, I can see almost nothing but, actually. Let's just concentrate on the "th" sound for a moment, though, since that's what brought us here. The Online Etymology Dictionary has some fascinating stuff about it. It tells us that the "th" sound is found mainly in words stemming from Old English, Old Norse and Greek: It was"unpronounceable by Normans and many other Europeans". The Romans couldn't do it either, which is why many of our "th" words come across as Italian and Spanish "t" words: teoria for "theory," teatro  for "theater").

Like a most famous theatre group in my neck of the woods, Teatro Campesino:

Germanic languages represented the "th" sound in two ways, neither one of them digraphs. One was "ð", which I'm familiar from Icelandic mystery writer Arnaldur Indriðason ( hear how an Icelandic person pronounces his name here), and the other is "þ", or thorn, which was originally a rune.  

Old English, unlike Old Norse did not standardize which symbol meant a hard "th" and which a soft one. The "ð" was lost from English first, though, when the digraph "th" returned to England with French scribes circa 1250. They apparently had the "th" as a carry over from the Greek letter θ or theta, but pronounced it "t", circa 1250. The "thorn" was harder to get rid of, and clung, thornlike, in words like þat, þe, þat, þe, þis,is, or that, the, this. Their, or should I say, þeir death knell was sounded when the age of printing began, and type, which had to be imported from Europe, had no letter font for þ.

People were reluctant to part with their thorny old friend, and for awhile they, especially those in Scotland, substituted the "y" because it looked somewhat like a þ. I was quite surprised to learn that "ye" was always pronounced "the", or so says Online Etymology, and when have they ever steered us wrong?

Actually, they did steer us a bit wrong, because there is a different path for the pronoun ye, as in "My lord, I pray ye, put off your doublet" and the article form, as in Ye Olde Shoppe. The first is from Sir Thomas More, an apocryphal text from William Shakespeare, the second, modern day claptrap. I guess they both might be claptrap, but the first is at least from the right era and used correctly.   


1 comment:

  1. In my fascination with the Old Norse alphabet, I forgot to give the simple etymology here. Digraph, from the Greek, simply means "twice written". It came into our language around 1788, coined for the study of linguistics.