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Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

Have you ever wondered about the ubiquitous “ye” in old publications (and certain Bible translations)? Did people actually go around using “ye” instead of “the”? How about quaint shops with signs like “Ye Olde Coffee Shoppe” — or even “Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese”? How historically accurate are these?

As Stu Evans explains on Quora, no one in England ever said “ye” (pronounced “yee”) to mean “the”. Ye (pronoun) is a form of the second-person plural pronoun “you.”

As for its old-English-sounding use in place of “the,” the word “the” is old. Like, really old. “The”, pronounced in a way that you would recognize as the same word today, already exists in Old English Beowulf. However, literacy was lower in those days, and not many people wrote things down. Those that did, incorporated letters and sounds with other European and Scandinavian roots.

One such letter is the “thorn,” which looks like this: Þ or þ. It usually made a soft “th” sound, similar to the “th” sound you know today from words like “thought.”

Removing the Thorn

Time went on, and English writers were happy to use the “thorn” in their writings, and the article “the” was written “Þe.” Mind you, no spellings were standardized at this point — “ruines” would sometimes be spelled “ruins.” 

Then, printing took hold, popularised by Johannes Gutenberg in Europe and later by William Caxton in England. And a problem arose: when getting hold of typefaces, the “thorn” wasn’t really a thing. Instead, people started using the Y shape, as it’s kind of similar. Shortly after, the word “Ye” started to appear as a kind of shorthand. It later evolved into a small “E” appearing above the larger “Y” shape, which means that the word “the” was written as: EME ye.svg

Gradually, it became more commonplace to write the “th” rather than use more antiquated constructions. This is possibly (but I can’t prove it so treat this as speculation on my part) because of increasing literacy increasing the demand for printed works, and the reduced typeset of using the digraph “th” made this cheaper in the long run.

So, no one actually said “ye” in place of “the” even though that was the written spelling for the word for a while!

The Real Ye and the T-V Distinction (No, Not That Kind of TV)

How about the real “ye,” though? How was that used?

As Wikipedia explains, in Old English, the use of second-person pronouns was governed by a simple rule:

  • þū addressed one person,
  • ġit addressed two people, and
  • ġē addressed more than two.

If you’re surprised by the unfamiliarity of it all, remember that we’re talking Beowulf English here, which is rather more Germanic than its Modern descendant, as can be seen in this excerpt:

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

After the Norman Conquest, which marks the beginning of the French vocabulary influence that characterized the Middle English period, the singular was gradually replaced by the plural as the form of address for a superior and later for an equal.

The practice of matching singular and plural forms with informal and formal connotations, respectively, is called the T–V distinction.

The T-V distinction began with the practice of addressing kings and other aristocrats in the plural. Eventually, this was generalized, as in French, to address any social superior or stranger with a plural pronoun, which was believed to be more polite. In French, “tu” was eventually considered either intimate or condescending (and, to a stranger, potentially insulting), while the plural form “vous” was reserved and formal. In Early Modern English, “ye” functioned as both an informal plural and formal singular second-person nominative pronoun. “Ye” is still commonly used as an informal plural in Hiberno‐English and Newfoundland English. Both dialects also use variants of “ye” for alternative cases, such as “yeer” (your), “yeers” (yours), and “yeerselves” (yourselves).

So, here is a list of Modern English singular second-person pronouns and their archaic equivalents (plurals are the same):

  • you – thee
  • your – thy
  • yours – thine
  • yourself – thyself

Happy writing!