This Post is Brought to Ye by the Letter Thorn

Kirsten Reach
January 26, 2009
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Pictures via Smoot.

I ran into someone I hadn’t expected to see again today. Seamus Heaney had introduced us a long while ago, but the last place I expected to encounter this character was on the MetroNorth line on our way to Grand Central terminal, smack in the middle of a silly word book by Roy Blout Jr. entitled Alphabet Juice. This book must have inspired Maud Newton’s friend to write about Mark Twain’s use of the verb “google,” but it goes on to delve into the root of this word and is thus pleasantly modern, yet rife with the humor of an old-fashioned curmudgeon. I digress; I’m not here to review the book. What I mean to say is Blount Jr. solved one of the world’s great language mysteries for me today, and I’d like to share it with you.

There is a strange letter he brings up as an aside that looks a bit like a lowercase p in some scrawlings, and a Y in others. This character is a part of the runic alphabet, better known as fu??orc (named after the first letters of its alphabet: f, u, th, a, r, k, just as ours is named after alpha, beta). It does rather bump out a bit, I suppose something about its appearance or some ineffable quality (Blount Jr. prefers the adjective of his own invention, “sonicky”) that makes the pronounciation “thorn” appropriate for this letter.

There is a beautiful passage in Seamus Heaney’s introduction to his own translation of Beowulf which discusses at length the reason the character thorn resonates with him. I will quote it here because (a) it is very beautiful, and (b) he quotes John Crowe Ransom of The Kenyon Review:

Sprung from an Irish nationalist background and educated at a Northern Irish Catholic school, I had learned the Irish language and lived within a cultural and ideological frame that regarded it as the language that I should by rights have been speaking but I had been robbed of. I have also written, for example, about the thrill I experienced when I stumbled upon the word lachtar in my Irish-English dictionary, and found that this word, which my aunt had always used when speaking of a flock of chicks, was in fact an Irish language word, and more than that, an Irish word associated in particular with County Derry. Yet here it was surviving in my aunt’s English speech generations after her forebears and mine had ceased to speak Irish. For a long time, therefore, the little word was ??? to borrow a simile from Joyce ??? like a rapier point of consciousness pricking me with an awareness of language-loss and cultural dispossession, and tempting me into binary thinking about language….

What happened was that I found in the glossary to C. L. Wrenn’s edition of the poem the Old English word meaning ???to suffer’, the word ??olian; and although at first it looked completely strange with its thorn symbol instead of the familiar th, I gradually realized that it was not strange at all, for it was the word that older and less educated people would have used in the country where I grew up. ???They’ll just have to learn to thole,’ my aunt would say about some family who had suffered through an unforeseen bereavement. And now suddenly here was ???thole’ in the official textual world, mediated through the apparatus of a scholarly edition, a little bleeper to remind me that my aunt’s language was not just a self-enclosed family possession but an historical heritage, one that involved the journey ??olian had made north into Scotland and then across unto Ulster with the planters, and then across from the planters to the locals who had originally spoken Irish, and then farther across again when the Scots Irish emigrated to the American South in the eighteenth century. When I read in John Crowe Ransom the line, ???Sweet ladies, long may ye bloom, and toughly I hope ye may thole’, my heart lifted again, the world widened, something was furthered. The far-flungness of the word, the phenomenological pleasure of finding it variously transformed by Ransom’s modernity and Beowulf’s venerability made me feel vaguely something for which again I only found the words years later. What I was experiencing as I kept meeting up with thole on its multi-cultural odyssey was the feeling that Osip Madelstam once defined as a ???nostalgia for world culture’. And this was a nostalgia I didn’t even know I suffered until I experienced its fulfillment in this little epiphany. It was as if, on the analogy of baptism by desire, I had undergone something like illumination by philology. And even though I did not know it at the time, I had by then reached the point where I was ready to translate Beowulf. ??olian had opened my right of way.

I cannot admit that something was not lifted, nor the world widened, nor was my heart lifted again by reading this abandoned letter. I was quite tickled by a typo instead. There’s a little set-up to the joke:

After the birth of Gutenberg’s printing press, the character thorn was shortened to the letter y with letters subscripted as in the pictures above. (The first example of this is William Caxton, the English printer, according to my online sources.)

Some Medieval scribes differentiated between the “voiced” th sound (“there”) and the unvoiced th sound (“think”), but the texts that have survived are inconsistent. The BBC refers to the difference as a “buzzing sound,” but it strikes me as something more subtle. Roy Blunt Jr. writes about the “h” sound in the word “why” in two instances which do sound different: “Why, bless my soul,” pronounced as wy, and “Why, baby, why?” pronounced hwy. This brings my mind to the image of the great caterpillar of the Alice and Wonderland cartoon blowing hookah into poor Alice’s face. The difference between “there” and “think” is almost as tricky to hear, which may be the reason these scribes failed to find a way to delineate the thorns, even in subscript.

(The trouble with writing about words is that you have to use words to describe them, and it’s very difficult not to stumble over one or another along the way. Already this post is growing tedious and indulgent.)

For the sake of this blog post, I will rely on an image to round out the joke. This sticky thorn character is to blame for countless roadside signs that I suppose are meant to look Anglo-Saxon. Thus the word “Ye” is not meant as “You,” it is meant to substitute for the letters t-h. “Ye” would best be pronounced “the,” as in the sign below.

Photo via Dumb Signs.


Rather ruins the sign’s old-fashioned charm, doesn’t it? (Blount Jr. also suggests you read the American Heritage Dictionary’s Word Notes for the term “nerd.”)

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