Ye Olde English
How do you pronounce that phrase? Some people might argue about whether the e in Olde should be pronounced, but no-one would dispute how to pronounce the other two words. Would they…?
It seems reasonable to assume (as I did for a long time) that Ye is pronounced with a y sound (as in you) at the beginning of the word, but here’s the thing:
That’s not a y.
Recovered yourself? Good. Then let me explain. It is in fact, an old letter called a thorn (well, to be pedantic, it’s a y substituting for a thorn) which was used in Old and Middle English. Derived from an ancient Nordic rune, the thorn normally looks like this: Þ, þ (upper and lower case respectively). It could be used to represent two similar consonant sounds: /θ/, as in thing, or /ð/, as in the. So Ye Olde English is actually pronounced the same as The Old English. Huh!
But why use a y instead of this thorn you refer to, I hear you ask? Well, I’ll tell you that too. The thorn began to fall out of favour in English in the 14th century, as more and more people began to use th to represent the /θ/ and /ð/ sounds the thorn was used for, as we still do today (though the thorn is still used in modern Icelandic. Good on you, Iceland). As the thorn became less popular, its shape gradually began to change too. It lost its ascender (the little bit that sticks out on top), coming to resemble something between a y and a p. As printing hadn’t come about in Europe yet, most literature was handwritten, and in some writers’ scripts, the thorn was much more like a y. though it was still never pronounced like it.
Once printing came along, y was often used instead of the thorn, simply because many type fonts were imported from Germany and Italy and didn’t feature the thorn. So that’s why the was written as ye. As is so often the case, there are simple, pragmatic reasons for some of the major changes in English.
Hopefully you’ve found this interesting, and can rejoice in correcting your friends whenever they say “Ye old ____.” If for some reason they don’t appreciate that, just tell them an anonymous person on the internet told you you’re correct!