Thorn (letter)

Last updated
Upper- and lowercase versions of the thorn character, in sans-serif (left) and serif (right).
Writing system
Latin script
Language of origin
Old English
Phonetic usage
th, d, th, d
Unicode value
Alphabetical position
30th (Icelandic)
Time period
~800 to present
the, tht, thu, y, ye, yt
Transliteration equivalents
Th, th
Other Latin alphabet Thth.svg
Upper- and lowercase versions of the thorn character, in sans-serif (left) and serif (right).
Writing system Latin script
Type Alphabetic
Language of origin Old English
Phonetic usageθ, ð, θ̠, ð̠
Unicode valueU+00FE
Alphabetical position30th (Icelandic)
  • Þþ
Time period~800 to present
Descendantsþͤ, þͭ, þͧ, yᷤ, yͤ, yͭ
Transliteration equivalents Θ, th

Thorn or þorn (Þ, þ) is a letter in the Old English, Gothic, Old Norse, Old Swedish, and modern Icelandic alphabets, as well as 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.

Anglo-Saxon runes system of runes for Old English

Anglo-Saxon runes are runes used by the early Anglo-Saxons as an alphabet in their writing. The characters are known collectively as the futhorc, from the Old English sound values of the first six runes. The futhorc was a development from the 24-character Elder Futhark. Since the futhorc runes are thought to have first been used in Frisia before the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain, they have also been called Anglo-Frisian runes. They were likely used from the 5th century onward, recording Old English and Old Frisian.

Gothic language language

Gothic is an extinct East Germanic language that was spoken by the Goths. It is known primarily from the Codex Argenteus, a 6th-century copy of a 4th-century Bible translation, and is the only East Germanic language with a sizable text corpus. All others, including Burgundian and Vandalic, are known, if at all, only from proper names that survived in historical accounts, and from loanwords in other languages such as Portuguese, Spanish, and French.

Old Swedish is the name for two distinct stages of the Swedish language that were spoken in the Middle Ages: Early Old Swedish, spoken from around 1225 until 1375, and Late Old Swedish, spoken from 1375 until 1526.


It is pronounced as either a voiceless dental fricative [θ] or the voiced counterpart of it [ð]. However, in modern Icelandic, it is pronounced as a laminal voiceless alveolar non-sibilant fricative [θ̠], [1] [2] similar to th as in the English word thick, or a (usually apical) voiced alveolar non-sibilant fricative [ð̠], [1] [2] 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. [3]

Voiceless dental fricative consonantal sound

The voiceless dental non-sibilant fricative is a type of consonantal sound used in some spoken languages. It is familiar to English speakers as the 'th' in thing. Though rather rare as a phoneme in the world's inventory of languages, it is encountered in some of the most widespread and influential. The symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet that represents this sound is ⟨θ⟩, and the equivalent X-SAMPA symbol is T. The IPA symbol is the Greek letter theta, which is used for this sound in post-classical Greek, and the sound is thus often referred to as "theta".

Voiced dental fricative Consonantal sound

The voiced dental fricative is a consonant sound used in some spoken languages. It is familiar to English-speakers, as the th sound in father. Its symbol in the International Phonetic Alphabet is eth, or and was taken from the Old English and Icelandic letter eth, which could stand for either a voiced or unvoiced interdental non-sibilant fricative.

A laminal consonant is a phone produced by obstructing the air passage with the blade of the tongue, the flat top front surface just behind the tip of the tongue on the top. It contrasts with an apical consonant, produced by creating an obstruction with the tongue apex only. The distinction applies only to coronal consonants, which use the front of the tongue.

In typography, the lowercase thorn character is unusual in that it has both an ascender and a descender (other examples are lowercase Cyrillic ф and in some fonts, the Latin letter f).

Typography Art and the craft of printing and the arranging of layouts

Typography is the art and technique of arranging type to make written language legible, readable, and appealing when displayed. The arrangement of type involves selecting typefaces, point sizes, line lengths, line-spacing (leading), and letter-spacing (tracking), and adjusting the space between pairs of letters (kerning). The term typography is also applied to the style, arrangement, and appearance of the letters, numbers, and symbols created by the process. Type design is a closely related craft, sometimes considered part of typography; most typographers do not design typefaces, and some type designers do not consider themselves typographers. Typography also may be used as a decorative device, unrelated to communication of information.

Glyph Element of writing

In typography, a glyph is an elemental symbol within an agreed set of symbols, intended to represent a readable character for the purposes of writing. Glyphs are considered to be unique marks that collectively add up to the spelling of a word or contribute to a specific meaning of what is written, with that meaning dependent on cultural and social usage.

Ascender (typography) portion of a minuscule letter in a Latin-derived alphabet that extends above the mean line of a font or script

In typography, an ascender is the portion of a minuscule letter in a Latin-derived alphabet that extends above the mean line of a font. That is, the part of a lower-case letter that is taller than the font's x-height.



Old English

The letter thorn was used for writing Old English very early on, as was ð; unlike ð, 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 English Stage of the English language from about the 12th through 15th centuries

Middle English was a form of the English language spoken after the Norman conquest (1066) until the late 15th century. English underwent distinct variations and developments following the Old English period. Scholarly opinion varies, but the Oxford English Dictionary specifies the period when Middle English was spoken as being from 1150 to 1500. This stage of the development of the English language roughly followed the High to the Late Middle Ages.

The International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) is an alphabetic system of phonetic notation based primarily on the Latin alphabet. It was devised by the International Phonetic Association in the late 19th century as a standardized representation of the sounds of spoken language. The IPA is used by lexicographers, foreign language students and teachers, linguists, speech-language pathologists, singers, actors, constructed language creators and translators.

, or Þ (thorn) with stroke was a scribal abbreviation common in the Middle Ages. It was used for Old English "þæt", as well as Old Norse "þor-", the "-þan"/"-ðan" in síðan, "þat", "þæt", and "þess". In Old English texts, the stroke tended to be more slanted, while in Old Norse texts it was straight. In Middle English times, the ascender of the þ was reduced, which caused the thorn with stroke abbreviation to be replaced with a thorn with a small t above the letter.

Middle and Early Modern English

The modern digraph th began to grow in popularity during the 14th century; at the same time, the shape of thorn 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). In some hands, such as that of the scribe of the unique mid-15th-century manuscript of The Boke of Margery Kempe , it ultimately became indistinguishable from the letter Y. By this stage, th was predominant and the use of thorn was largely restricted to certain common words and abbreviations. In William Caxton's pioneering printed English, it is rare except in an abbreviated the, written with a thorn and a superscript E. This was the longest-lived use, though the substitution of Y for thorn soon 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 type fonts that were imported from Germany or Italy, while thorn did not. [ citation needed ] The word was never pronounced with a "y" sound, though, even when so written. [ citation needed ] The first printing of the King James Version of the Bible in 1611 used the Y form of thorn with a superscript E in places such as Job 1:9, John 15:1, and Romans 15:29. It also used a similar form with a superscript T, which was an abbreviated that , in places such as 2 Corinthians 13:7. All were replaced in later printings by the or that, respectively.

Digraph (orthography) pair of characters used to write one phoneme

A digraph or digram is a pair of characters used in the orthography of a language to write either a single phoneme, or a sequence of phonemes that does not correspond to the normal values of the two characters combined.

Wynn is a letter of the Old English alphabet, where it is used to represent the sound.

The Book of Margery Kempe is a medieval text attributed to Margery Kempe, an English Christian mystic and pilgrim who lived at the turn of the fifteenth century. It details Kempe's life, her travels, her alleged experiences of divine revelation, and her presence at key biblical events such as the Nativity and the Crucifixion.


The following were 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)
  • (yᷤ) an Early Modern English abbreviation for the word this
  • EME ye.svg – () an Early Modern English abbreviation for the word the
  • EME that.svg – () an Early Modern English abbreviation for the word that
<i>Thou</i> English archaic personal pronoun

The word thou is a second-person singular pronoun in English. It is now largely archaic, having been replaced in most contexts by you. It is used in parts of Northern England and in Scots, and also in rural parts of Newfoundland, albeit as a recessive feature. Thou is the nominative form; the oblique/objective form is thee, the possessive is thy (adjective) or thine and the reflexive is thyself. When thou is the grammatical subject of a finite verb in the indicative mood, the verb form typically ends in -(e)st, but in some cases just -t, although in some dialects of Old English, this verb form ended in -s, hence the Quaker habit of using what looks like the third person form of the verb with "thee" as the subject.

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!". In fact, the y in the pronoun would have been spelled with a yogh, ȝe, rather than a y.


The Icelandic language is the only living language to retain the letter thorn (in Icelandic; þ, pronounced þoddn, [θ̠ɔtn̥] or þordn [θ̠ɔrtn̥] ). The letter is the 30th in the Icelandic alphabet; it is transliterated to th when it cannot be reproduced [4] and never appears at the end of a word. 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 spelt verða (meaning "to become") in modern Icelandic or normalized orthography. [5] Þ was originally taken from the runic alphabet and is described in the First Grammatical Treatise:

Staf þann er flestir menn kalla þþann 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. Skal þ standa fyrri í stafrófi en titull þó að ég hafi síðar umræðu um hann því að hann er síðast í fundinn, en af því fyrr um titul að hann var áður í stafrófi og ég lét hann þeim fylgja í umræðu eru honum líkir þarfnast sína jartein. Höfuðstaf þe-sins rita ég hvergi nema í vers upphafi því að hans atkvæði má eigi æxla þótt hann standi eftir raddarstaf í samstöfun. [6]

First Grammarian, First Grammatical Treatise

For example, the patronymic name of Icelandic athlete Anníe Mist Þórisdóttir is anglicised as Thorisdottir.

Computing codes

Unicode 00DE00FE
Character entity reference &THORN;&thorn;
ISO-8859-1, ISO-8859-15
LaTeX \TH\th


Various forms of thorn were used for medieval scribal abbreviations: [7]

See also

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  1. 1 2 Pétursson (1971 :?), cited in Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996 :145)
  2. 1 2 Ladefoged & Maddieson (1996), pp. 144–145.
  3. Einarsson, Stefán (1949). Icelandic: Grammar, Texts, Glossary. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press. pp. 22–23.
  4. "ICELANDIC BGN/PCGN 1968 Agreement" (PDF).
  5. Gordon, E.V. (1927). An Introduction to Old Norse . New York: Oxford University Press. p. 268. ISBN   0-19-811184-3.
  6. First Grammatical Treatise, eText (modernized spelling ed.), NO: Old.
  7. 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).