Thorn (letter)

Last updated
Þ þ
Latin letter Thorn.svg
Writing systemAdapted from Futhark and Futhorc into Latin script
Type Alphabetic and logographic
Language of origin Old English language
Old Norse language
Phonetic usage[ θ ]
[ ð ]
[ θ̠ ]
[ z ]
Unicode codepointU+00DE, U+00FE
  • Þ þ
Time period~800 to present
Descendantsꝥ, þͤ, þͭ, þͧ, yᷤ, yͤ, yͭ, (possibly) 𐌸
Transliteration equivalents Θ, th
Other letters commonly used with th, dh
Writing directionLeft-to-right
This article contains phonetic transcriptions in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA.For the distinction between [ ], / / and  , see IPA § Brackets and transcription delimiters.

Thorn or þorn (Þ, þ) is a letter in the Old English, Old Norse, Old Swedish and modern Icelandic alphabets, as well as modern transliterations of the Gothic alphabet, Middle Scots, and some dialects of Middle English. It was also used in medieval Scandinavia, but was later replaced with the digraph th, except in Iceland, where it survives. The letter originated from the rune in the Elder Fuþark and was called thorn in the Anglo-Saxon and thorn or thurs in the Scandinavian rune poems. It is similar in appearance to the archaic Greek letter sho (ϸ), although the two are historically unrelated. The only language in which þ is currently in use is Icelandic. [1]


It is pronounced as either a voiceless dental fricative [θ] or its voiced counterpart [ð]. However, in modern Icelandic, it is pronounced as a laminal voiceless alveolar non-sibilant fricative [θ̠], [2] [3] similar to th as in the English word thick, or a (usually apical) voiced alveolar non-sibilant fricative [ð̠], [2] [3] similar to th as in the English word the. Modern Icelandic usage generally excludes the latter, which is instead represented with the letter eth Ð, ð; however, [ð̠] may occur as an allophone of /θ̠/, and written þ, when it appears in an unstressed pronoun or adverb after a voiced sound. [4]

In typography, the lowercase thorn character is unusual in that it has both an ascender and a descender (other examples are the lowercase Cyrillic ф, and, in some [especially italic] fonts, the Latin letters f and ſ [ long s ]).



Old English

The letter thorn was used for writing Old English very early on, as was ð, called eth. Unlike eth, thorn remained in common use through most of the Middle English period. Both letters were used for the phoneme /θ/, sometimes by the same scribe. This sound was regularly realised in Old English as the voiced fricative [ð] between voiced sounds, but either letter could be used to write it; the modern use of [ð] in phonetic alphabets is not the same as the Old English orthographic use. A thorn with the ascender crossed () was a popular abbreviation for the word that .

Middle and Early Modern English

"... hir the grace that god put ..." (Extract from the The Boke of Margery Kempe) The Book of Margery Kempe, Chapter 18 (clip).png
"... hir the grace that god put ..." (Extract from the The Boke of Margery Kempe )

The modern digraph th began to grow in popularity during the 14th century; at the same time, the shape of Þ grew less distinctive, with the letter losing its ascender (becoming similar in appearance to the old wynn (Ƿ, ƿ), which had fallen out of use by 1300, and to ancient through modern P , p). By this stage, th was predominant and the use of Þ was largely restricted to certain common words and abbreviations. This was the longest-lived use, though with the arrival of movable type printing, the substitution of y for Þ became ubiquitous, leading to the common "ye", as in 'Ye Olde Curiositie Shoppe'. One major reason for this was that Y existed in the printer's types that were imported from Belgium and the Netherlands, while Þ did not. [5] The word was never pronounced as /j/, as in ⟨yes⟩, though, even when so written. [6] The first printing of the King James Version of the Bible in 1611 used ye for "the" in places such as Job 1:9, John 15:1, and Romans 15:29. [7] It also used yt as an abbreviation for "that", in places such as 2 Corinthians 13:7. All were replaced in later printings by the or that, respectively.

Abbreviations of "the"
Middle English the.svg
Middle English þ with superscript e
EME ye.svg
Blackletter y with superscript e

The following were scribal abbreviations during Middle and Early Modern English using the letter thorn:

  • Middle English the.svg (þͤ)  a Middle English abbreviation for the word the
  • Middle English that.svg (þͭ)  a Middle English abbreviation for the word that
  • Middle English thou.svg (þͧ)  a rare Middle English abbreviation for the word thou (which was written early on as þu or þou)

In later printed texts, given the lack of a sort for the glyph, [5] printers substituted the (visually similar) letter y for the thorn:

  •    yᷤ  an Early Modern English abbreviation for the word this
  • EME ye.svg (yͤ)  an Early Modern English abbreviation for the word the
  • EME that.svg (yͭ)  an Early Modern English abbreviation for the word that

Modern English

Thorn in the form of a "Y" survives in pseudo-archaic uses, particularly the stock prefix "ye olde". The definite article spelt with "Y" for thorn is often jocularly or mistakenly pronounced /jiː/ ("yee") or mistaken for the archaic nominative case of the second person plural pronoun, "ye", as in "hear ye!".


Þþ is sometimes used in Khmer romanization to represent thô.


Icelandic is the only living language to keep the letter thorn (in Icelandic; þ, pronounced þoddn, [θ̠ɔtn̥] or þorn [θ̠ɔrn̥] ). The letter is the 30th in the Icelandic alphabet, modelled after Old Norse alphabet in the 19th century; it is transliterated to th when it cannot be reproduced [8] and never appears at the end of a word. For example, the name of Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson is anglicised as Hafthor.

Its pronunciation has not varied much, but before the introduction of the eth character, þ was used to represent the sound [ð], as in the word "verþa", which is now spelt verða (meaning "to become") in modern Icelandic or normalized orthography. [9] Þ was originally taken from the runic alphabet and is described in the First Grammatical Treatise from the 12th-century:

Staf þann er flestir menn kalla þ, þann kalla ég af því heldur þe að þá er það atkvæði hans í hverju máli sem eftir lifir nafnsins er úr er tekinn raddarstafur úr nafni hans, sem alla hefi ég samhljóðendur samda í það mark nú sem ég reit snemma í þeirra umræðu. [...] Höfuðstaf þe-sins rita ég hvergi nema í vers upphafi því að hans atkvæði má eigi æxla þótt hann standi eftir raddarstaf í samstöfun. [10]

– First Grammarian, First Grammatical Treatise

The letter which most men call thorn I shall call the, so that its sound value in each context will be what is left of the name when the vowel is removed, since I have now arranged all the consonants in that manner, as I wrote earlier in this discussion. [...] The capital letter of the I do not write except at the beginning of a section, since its sound cannot be extended, even when it follows the vowel of the syllable. [11]

– First Grammarian, First Grammatical Treatise, translation by Einar Haugen

Upper- and lowercase versions of the thorn character, in sans-serif (left) and serif (right) Latin alphabet Thth.svg
Upper- and lowercase versions of the thorn character, in sans-serif (left) and serif (right)

Computing codes

Unicode 00DE00FE
Character entity reference Þþ
ISO-8859-1, ISO-8859-15
LaTeX \TH\th


Various forms of thorn were used for medieval scribal abbreviations: [12]

See also

Related Research Articles

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  1. "Icelandic language, alphabet and pronunciation". Retrieved 2022-04-14.
  2. 1 2 Pétursson (1971 :?), cited in Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996 :145)
  3. 1 2 Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996), pp. 144–145.
  4. Einarsson, Stefán (1949). Icelandic: Grammar, Texts, Glossary. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press. pp. 22–23.
  5. 1 2 Hill, Will (30 June 2020). "Chapter 25: Typography and the printed English text" (PDF). The Routledge Handbook of the English Writing System. p. 6. ISBN   9780367581565. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2022-07-10. The types used by Caxton and his contemporaries originated in Holland and Belgium, and did not provide for the continuing use of elements of the Old English alphabet such as thorn <þ>, eth <ð>, and yogh <ʒ>. The substitution of visually similar typographic forms has led to some anomalies which persist to this day in the reprinting of archaic texts and the spelling of regional words. The widely misunderstood 'ye' occurs through a habit of printer's usage that originates in Caxton's time, when printers would substitute the <y> (often accompanied by a superscript <e>) in place of the thorn <þ> or the eth <ð>, both of which were used to denote both the voiced and non-voiced sounds, /ð/ and /θ/ (Anderson, D. (1969) The Art of Written Forms. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, p 169)
  6. "ye-olde - Definition, pictures, pronunciation and usage notes | Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary at". Retrieved 2019-12-13.
  7. "1611 The Authorized King James Bible". p. 1400. Retrieved August 14, 2022.
  8. "Icelandic BGN/PCGN 1968 Agreement" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2016-10-26.
  9. Gordon, E.V. (1927). An Introduction to Old Norse . New York: Oxford University Press. p.  268. ISBN   0-19-811184-3.
  10. First Grammatical Treatise, eText (modernized spelling ed.), NO: Old.
  11. Haugen, Einar (1950). "First Grammatical Treatise. The Earliest Germanic Phonology". Language. 26 (4): 4–64. doi:10.2307/522272. ISSN   0097-8507. JSTOR   522272.
  12. Everson, Michael; Baker, Peter; Emiliano, António; Grammel, Florian; Haugen, Odd Einar; Luft, Diana; Pedro, Susana; Schumacher, Gerd; Stötzner, Andreas (2006-01-30). "L2/06-027: Proposal to add Medievalist characters to the UCS" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2013-08-19.
  13. Everson, Michael; West, Andrew (2020-10-05). "L2/20-268: Revised proposal to add ten characters for Middle English to the UCS" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2020-10-24.