Sunday, 22 March 2009

Bring back the letter thorn!

I love Anglo Saxon writing. Part of its appeal is that it looks like a foreign language, yet if you read it aloud, much of it is intelligible. And I can spend hours poring over (admittedly in translation) the Anglo Saxon Chronicles. But the thing I think we really ought to revive from Anglo Saxon is the letter thorn. That's not a thorn for putting letters on, but the 27th letter of the alphabet, called thorn.

I was reminded of this when there was a fuss on the news about the Icelandic bank, Kaupthing - because they use a thorn in their logo. It's the shape after the p in the picture. Thorn is a letter that's rendered as 'th'. Just think how often we use 'th' in English because of its thorny Anglo Saxon background. I'd love to bring it back. Þat's þe þing þat I'd like - it's a bit confusing to begin wiþ, but oþerwise fun!


  1. Oh, I love this linguistical stuff! Ancient Greek also had a letter similar to this called the "rough breathing" -- turned into an 'h' sound as well but looked like a backwards apostrophe.

  2. 'The "rough breathing"', eh? Sounds like something for making dubious phone calls. But seriously, yes it's great, isn't it.

    I have a copy of an ancient textbook called Sweet's Anglo Saxon Primer, that I keep meaning to study in depth, but never seem to find the time...

  3. Yeth pleath. And I altho have Thweet's Anglo Thaxon Priner. There are two 'th' signs in Anglo Thaxon - there's altho one that looks like a 'd'. In Middle English there's a letter that looks like '3' which is variously pronounced 'z', 'gh', 'zh' or 'hartlepool'.

  4. David the Harper1 January 2010 at 14:18

    almost - but actually the d with the stroke through the stem is called 'eth' and is pronounced soft and voiced, as in 'this', while the thorn is hard and unvoiced as in 'thick':

  5. @David the Harper: Yes, that is true for Icelandic, but the thorn and the eth were used interchangeably in Old English literature. However, the thorn lasted longer, and was still used through much of the Middle English period.

  6. Indeed, bringing back thorn would be very useful for representing the voiced th-sound. Also, I think it is truly part of the English cultural heritage and should be reintroduced for that reason as well. If a properly standard English language (just as High-German is standardized) were to be established then one should consider how thorn's presence would improve spelling and pronunciation.

  7. I am not a native english speaker (i am a bisaya; i speak it often ðough)
    and i agree-- ðe letter þorn should be brought back. to note, i already use it regularly (in writing personal notes... for privacy). it looks beautiful, and i would love to see a phonetic re-spelling of english using ðe letters etþ and ðorn (ð and þ, respectively).

    i have a similar idea wið the old phillipine script (baybayin) which i use too. let us dream ðat boþ our dreams become true.

    -ZUROU ᜇᜓᜄᜓᜂ