Origin of ye and the long s

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Ye is usually mispronounced as ‘yee’. In fact, the form of ye or, as modern signwriters have it, ye, is a printer’s method of reproducing the word from medieval English that was pronounced as ‘the’.

It’s all a result of the introduction of moveable type, developed by Johannes Gutenberg around 1450.

Until that time, scribes had used the letter þ (thorn) when writing the word so it would have looked something like þe. However, the early moulds for making type did not include the thorn so an alternative had to be found. By the time that Caxton began using his printing press in England, the thorn had developed to the point where it looked very much like a letter y. As a result, the early printers substituted the y for the thorn which is why old printed documents include ye. However, it does not change the pronunciation which should still be ‘the’.

Long s

This character, known as the long s, was used until around 1800 along with the lower case s that we know today. It appears to date from Roman times and was used in handwriting but by the middle of the 17th century it was being used by printers in England. It looks much like a lower case f but the cross bar does not extend to the right of the vertical stroke.

It is difficult to identify the rules that applied to the use of the long s but in general terms it seems that it was only ever used at the beginning or in the middle of words: where a word ended in s, then the short s was used, never the long s. However, the short s was sometimes used in the middle of a word if the following letter was tall, for example, in ‘established’ it is likely that the short s would be used because the long s needed to overlap the following letter slightly in order to make the layout look right. Obviously this would not have been possible when, as in ‘established’, it was followed by a t or an h. In those cases, the short s would probably have been used.

The long s disappeared towards the end of the 18th century, partly to avoid confusion with the f and partly to produce ‘lines [of text] having the effect of being more open’ as John Bell, printer and typefounder of London, put it in his ‘Prolegomena’ to his Shakespeare in 1788.