Thorn (letter): Wikis


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Latin letter Þþ.svg

Thorn, or þorn (Þ, þ), is a letter in the Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic alphabets. It was also used in medieval Scandinavia, but was later replaced with the digraph th. The letter originated from the rune in the Elder Fuþark, called thorn in the Anglo-Saxon and thorn or thurs ("Thor"[1], "giant") in the Scandinavian rune poems, its reconstructed Proto-Germanic name being *Thurisaz.

It has the sound of either a voiceless dental fricative, like th as in the English word thick, or a voiced dental fricative, like th as in the English word the. In Modern Icelandic the usage is restricted to the former. The voiced form is represented with the letter eth (Ð, ð), though eth can be unvoiced, depending on position within a sentence, in which case its IPA representation is given as θ (theta).

In its typography, the thorn is one of the few characters in the alphabets derived from the Latin whose modern lower-case form has greater height than the capital in its normal (roman), non-italic form.


Usage in languages


In English

Old English

The letter thorn was used for writing Old English very early on, like ð; but, unlike ð, it remained in common usage through most of the Middle English period. A thorn with the ascender crossed () was a popular abbreviation for the word that. Even though Old English had the two sounds distinguished in speech in written texts the two letters were often regarded as equivalent to each other.

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, in some hands, such as that of the scribe of the unique mid-15th century manuscript of The Boke of Margery Kempe, ultimately becoming indistinguishable from the letter Y. By this stage th was predominant, however, and the usage 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 usage, though the substitution of Y for thorn soon became ubiquitous, leading to the common 'ye's as in 'Ye Olde Curiositie Shoppe'. One major reason for this is that Y existed in the printer's type fonts that were imported from Germany or Italy, and Thorn did not. 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.


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

  • ME ye.png – (þe) a Middle English abbreviation for the word the
  • ME that.png – (þt) a Middle English abbreviation for the word that
  • ME thou.png – (þu) a rare Middle English abbreviation for the word thou (which was written early on as þu or þou)
  • (ys) an Early Modern English abbreviation for the word this
  • EME ye.png – (ye) an Early Modern English abbreviation for the word the
  • EME that.png – (yt) an Early Modern English abbreviation for the word that
An example of the last vestige of the letter thorn in the English language.

Modern English

Thorn in the form of a Y survives to this day in pseudo-archaic usages, particularly the stock prefix Ye olde. The definite article spelled with Y for thorn is often jocularly or mistakenly pronounced /jiː/ or mistaken for the archaic nominative case of you, written ye. It is used infrequently in some modern English word games to replace the th with a single letter.

A handwritten form of thorn that was similar to the letter 'y' in appearance with a small 'e' written above it as an abbreviation for 'the' was common in early Modern English. This can still be seen in reprints of the 1611 edition of the King James Version of the Bible in places such as Romans 15:29, or in the Mayflower Compact. Note that the article was never pronounced with a y sound, even when so written. (However the modern, 19th and 20th century pseudo-archaic usage such as "Ye Olde Englishe Tea Shoppe" can be pronounced with a y sound.)

In Icelandic

The Icelandic language is the only living language to retain the letter thorn (in Icelandic; þorn, pronounced þoddn, [θ̠ɔtn̥]) in common usage. The letter is the 30th in the Icelandic alphabet and never appears at the end of a word. Its pronunciation has not varied much, but in earlier times þorn was sometimes used instead of ð as in the word "verþa" which is verða (meaning "to become") in modern Icelandic. Þorn was originally taken from English and is described in the First Grammatical Treatise:

Staf þann er flestir menn kalla þorn þann kalla ég af því heldur the 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 the-sins rita ég hvergi nema í vers upphafi því að hans atkvæði má eigi æxla þótt hann standi eftir raddarstaf í samstöfun.[2]
— From the First Grammatical Treatise by the First Grammarian

On computers

The þ character is accessible using AltGr+t on a modern US-International keyboard

Þ and þ are part of Unicode and can be found at U+00DE and U+00FE respectively. Thorn can also be typed on a normal QWERTY keyboard by typing Alt+0222 (Þ) and Alt+0254 (þ) on the keypad using Windows, or on a Macintosh by enabling the US Extended input method and typing option+t (þ) or option+shift+T (Þ). The character can be typed directly from a standard Icelandic keyboard, with a CTRL key-combination from a Canadian Multilingual Standard or with AltGr from a US-International keyboard, but is not found on most keyboard layouts. In HTML lowercase is þ and uppercase is Þ while in LaTeX \th and \TH are respectively lower and upper case.

Different operating systems and window managers allow users to access the character in different ways. Almost all have some form of character map utility that allows users to copy and paste the character into a text. Word processing software such as Writer or Microsoft Word have similar utilities. Also, users often can switch keyboard layouts, customise an existing keyboard layout, or enter the letter directly using a character code. Advice on accessing the character on specific operating systems can be found in many places on the Internet (e.g., for X Window: [2]).

Popular culture

  • The thorn rune is used as a symbol of evil in some films in the Halloween series.
  • Thorn is sometimes used as part of the emoticon :-þ (or =Þ, :Þ, :þ, :-Þ, ;Þ), representing a face with a tongue sticking out.
  • Another emoticon, depicting a man in a hat is (-:þ.


A thorn with a stroke on the ascender (Ꝥꝥ) was used in English (see the section on usage).

A thorn with a stroke on the descender also exists (Ꝧꝧ). The capital form is at codepoint U+A766, and the minuscule form is at codepoint U+A767.


  • Freeborn, Dennis (1992) From Old English to Standard English. London: Macmillan

See also

External links

The Basic modern Latin alphabet
Aa Bb Cc Dd Ee Ff Gg Hh Ii Jj Kk Ll Mm Nn Oo Pp Qq Rr Ss Tt Uu Vv Ww Xx Yy Zz

history palaeography derivations diacritics punctuation numerals Unicode list of letters ISO/IEC 646


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