Remember the recipe for a cockatrice the other day?
What’s going on with the funny ‘p’ shaped letters in that? Well, Old English had additional letters, drawn from the old Runic script. For example:-
Ƿ ƿ – called wynn was used to represent the /w/ sound in Old English
Ð ð – called eth is a voiced dental fricative - /th/ as in ‘thick’
Þ þ – called thorn is a voiceless dental fricative - /th/ as in ‘them’
Both wynn and eth were dropped from English from about 1300 onward but thorn remained in use into the Early Modern period. It was frequently used by early printers with a superscript letter /e/ to represent the word ‘the’; þe was often used to save space, and the fuller ‘the’ used where space was not a problem. Similarly þt was a common abbreviation for ‘that’. Over time, the thorn became confused with the letter /y/, giving words like ye, you, yem, or yat which would be pronounced as the, thou, them and that. Further confusion arose with the old second person singular ye – meaning ‘you’, and people began to pronounce þe (‘the’) as ‘ye’. We find this still in such formations as Ye Olde Tea Shoppe, with the first word pronounced ‘ye’ rather than ‘the’. So pronounce it properly, as ‘The Old Tea Shop’. And forget all that old-ee shop-ee nonsense too. Old English may have scattered vowels around like there was no tomorrow, but that was then and this is now. So pack it in please.
Just as an example, take the word ‘pease’, as in ‘pease-pudding’. ‘Pease’ is a singular word, but when the /e/ was dropped from the end, it became ‘peas’, which some bright spark assumed it must be plural because it had an ‘s’ at the end, so obviously the singular must be ‘pea’. We can see that ‘pease’ was singular from this line from October in Spenser’s Shepherd Calendar,
'The vaunting poets found nought worth a pease.”
The plural form ‘peasen’ is seen in Chaucer’s Legende of the Goode Women,
“He poureth pesen upon the hacches slidre."(One poured peas on the hatches to make them slippery).
Langland’s Vision of Piers Plowman also has pees as singular and presen or peses as plural.
|Edmund Spencer - A Shepherd's Calendar - 1579|
Another combination of letters than has caused confusion in the past is the ampersand. The letter ‘e’ and ‘t’ of the Latin word ‘et’ – ‘and’ – were joined together to make the ligature ‘&’. One version of the name for this was that, because the symbol looks like a sitting cat with a paw raised, it is called an ‘and-pussy-and’. In old elementary school-rooms, as the alphabet was recited, any letter that could stand as a word alone was prefixed with the words ‘per se’ – Latin for ‘in, of, or by itself’. The letter ‘A’, standing at the head of the alphabet, with its prefix, ‘A-per-se’, came to mean anything excellent, as in the line describing Melusine from 'The Romans of Partenay’,
“She was a woman A-per-se, alone.”
At the other end of the alphabet are the letters ‘X Y Z and &’, which would be said as ‘Ecks, Wye Zed and per se and’, which, schoolboys being schoolboys, was simplified to ‘am-puzzy-am’ or ‘and-pussy-and’, until later, having learned some Latin, they recognised to be ‘and per se and’, which eventually became ‘ampersand’.
|From Notes and Queries - December 30th 1871|
In a modern twist, it has been proposed, using the same logic, that @ should be called an ‘ampersat’ – ‘and per se @’ or ‘and by itself at’. I like it.