This was originally published in my work Slack on 2016-08-15, but I’ve since been convinced that more people than just those few who can even read it there might be interested. I’ve edited it for clarity and correctness. I’m going to migrate all my Linguistcs Minutes over to my blog and probably post future ones here.

So in English, we have two sounds that we spell “th”. The “th” in think (unvoiced like “f” and “t”) and the “th” in these (voiced like “v” and “d”). This can be a bit confusing when you run across a new word in print, but most native speakers have an intuitive grasp over when to use which sound (mostly to do with nearby vowels) that it works out OK.

But it wasn’t always so. Old English—and previous Germanic languages—used two different letters: eth (voiced) and thorn (unvoiced). Eth looks like Ð, ð and thorn looks like Þ, þ. So, like, the name Theobold would have been spelled “Þeobold”.

However, printing wasn’t invented in England, and when printing came to England, the English printers were looking at the little letter blocks and were like, “Shit. There’s no ‘ð’. WTF do we do?” So they looked at what they had and were like, “You know what. The ‘y’ looks sort of… vaguely like a ‘ð’, so let’s just use that.” This is a big stretch, but you know… they didn’t have a lot to work with.

So they started spelling things that we spell with “th” today with a “y”. The upshot of all of this is that it was never pronounced “ye shoppe” and doesn’t mean “you shop”… it was pronounced “the shop” because it was … the shop.