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Ye Olde Way of Speaking Old English Wasn’t That Way

Nothing speaks to authentic medieval culture than the words “ye olde.” If you see those words as part of the name of an establishment, you know it is a place steeped in history.

Except, it isn’t.

Fans of the television show The Big Bang Theory know that this is a point of irritation for Sheldon. In ”The Codpiece Typology,” the boys return from a Renaissance Fair, listening to Sheldon expound on the historical inaccuracies of the event. Among his many complaints was the authenticity of some soap. He says, “Those people need to learn you can’t just put ’ye olde’ in front of anything you want and expect to get away with it.”

Why is ”ye olde” so firmly established as an indicator of ancient days gone by?

Sheldon expresses his disapproval of the words ”Ye Olde” in The Big Bang Theory episode ”The Codpiece Topology.”

The word “ye” is a misspelling and mispronunciation. The confusion arises from the fact that there used to be more letters in the alphabet. The letter thorn (þ) was pronounced with a “th” sound. It was frequently used as an abbreviation for “the.” To the untrained eye, it can be mistaken for a “y” with a superscript “e”: Ye.

Regardless of how it looked, it was never pronounced as “ye.” It was always a “the.”

Then there is the supposed old way of spelling “old” as “olde.” It is done to convey a rich, established history, but the practice is only a little more than 100 years old.

As explained in the excellent and very interesting book Righting the Mother Tongue, (available through the advertisement information in this article), author David Wolman explains that the word “olde” didn’t show up before the late 19th century. It was something done as a marketing gimmick to convey a sense of antiquity. If you want to be authentic, you can use the genuine Old English variations, such as “alde,” “auld,” “awld,” and “ole.”

Armed with this vital information, you can join with Sheldon Cooper, strike an attitude of righteous indignation, and defend the Mother Tongue against ye olde infractions on its authenticity.


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