Thorn and Eth: Þ and Ð

Today, we will venture faaaar beyond Babylonia and her Semitic languages, and we shall focus on the Anglo-Saxon language (Old English). In particular, we will focus on two distinct alphabetical characters that have been used in the Anglo-Saxon writing system, that are no longer used in Modern English writing.
In order to understand this post, I shall have to gloss over a VERY brief evolution of the English language as it occurred in Britain, and why the lingua franca changed so much. Feel free to scroll down to Part II and return up here at the very end.

>>>> PART I <<<<
A Condensed History of Britain.

43 CE to ~400 CE: Brittania (Part of the Roman Empire)
The isle of Britain in 43 AD was under Roman occupation. During that era, it was known as Brittania, where Brittonic (a Celtic language) was the common tongue. Though it remained a Celtic language in its origins, the presence of Roman culture influenced it with Latin. We have yet to find written evidence of this language.
The end of this era came with a withdrawal of the Roman rule in Brittania, as an influx of Germanic tribes established settlements on the isle: Jutes, Angles, and Saxons.
By 450 AD it became official: the Anglo-Saxon culture and language was to prevail in the coming years.

~450 CE to 1066 CE: Anglo-Saxon England
450 CE: The Germanic culture started to gain influence from eastern edges of the isle until it grew westward through Britain (except for Cornwall). The combination of language from the Angles and Saxons, with a bit of the local Brittonic, gave birth to a new language. However, this was not to be the complete loss of Roman influence in the isle. In the year 600 CE, Irish christian monks introduced the Latin script. However, instead of using it for writing in Latin, they’d modify it for use to write in the emerging language of the time: Old English (Anglo-Saxon). This Germanic era continued until it ended with The Battle of Hastings at 1066. The Anglo-Saxons resisted, but were defeated in the hands of the Norman-French conquerers.

1066 CE: Anglo-Norman England
With their victory, Normandy established an Anglo-Norman era in the isle. A heavy influence of French loan words entered the vernacular of Anglo-Saxon within a century after the Norman conquest. It was during that period that Old English (which was already Germanic, with some Celtic Brittonic, and sprinkles of Latin words from the Roman period) blended with the French of that time period. This era was to mark a gradual shift of language on the isle, from Old English and into Middle English.

TO SUM UP: English is a hodgepodge of Celtic, Latin, North Sea Germanic, and mediaeval French. Like many world languages, evolving over time and breeding a bit with neighbouring languages.

Print: The Penguin Atlas of World History.
Web: History of Anglo Saxons

>>>> Part II <<<<

Shifting back into focus: Those two letters I mentioned before my history lesson?

Those characters were introduced into the Anglo-Saxon alphabet in the 8th century, in order to supplement their new writing system. Basically, England at the time began using the Latin alphabet for writing in their own language, rather than in Latin. However, Latin phonology did not have all the sounds that the Anglo-Saxon language needed. This is because Latin is a pure Romance language, whereas English was a Germanic language — a few sounds that exist in one language could be absent in the other language family.

Now, what did the Anglo-Saxons do with this challenge?

The missing letters that Latin alphabet did not provide, had to be imported from the Runic fuþorc (futhorc) alphabet, which was used to write in Old Frisian. By using Latin alphabet, and filling in the missing sounds with letters from Runic futhorc, the Anglo-Saxons finally had a complete alphabet to write all their sounds! Those imported letters were: Æ/æ (ash), Þ/þ (thorn), and Ƿ/ƿ (wynn).
Ð/ð (eth) was created by adding a slash on the D/d to distinguish it from the regular Latin D/d. In total, we have 4 additional characters. All of this marked the birth of the Old English Latin alphabet! This slightly-modified Latin writing system fit the needs of Old English to represent such words like: þunor for thunder and broðer for brother.

Thorn and Eth - 2-02

These archaic characters were used in Old English orthography from the 8th century until they fell out of use in the 12th century. This post is only about the two of those letters: the Thorn and the Eth.

Thorn and Eth - 1.2-01

Latin does not have a th-sound, nor does it have a th-sound. Confused yet? Good, because I’m trying to make a point, which you shall see at the very end.

Specific to the Thorn and the Eth, is that I believe if we would revive them into the Modern English writing system, it may prove to be a useful learning tool for those just starting to learn English. It would also be beneficial, because . . . who doesn’t like consistency in language?

Thorn and Eth - 1.3-02

>>>> PART III – The Letters <<<<

Þ or þ – “Thorn”
Used in Old Frisian and Old Anglo-Saxon, and currently used in Icelandic.

Þank you for the þoughtful gift on þursday, I was very þrilled!
Thank you for the thoughtful gift on Thursday, I was very thrilled.

Thorn is one of the characters originating from the Old Runic futharc, equivalent to the Greek θ (Theta). Both the Thorn and Theta are voiceless dental fricatives.

But wait! If the Thorn was imported from a Germanic language, then why don’t Germans today use the th-sounds? Because Angles and Saxons spoke a variety of West German called Ingvaeonic languages (spoken on the North Sea coast), whereas Modern German is a descendant of High German, originating from the Irminoic German.

Beginning from the 7th century, usage of the thorn was commonplace in scriptures.
Then, there came the standard practice of the Thorn grapheme being used to transcribe two separate phonemes: the th in “Thankful” and the th in “Therefore”. If you look at Modern Icelandic, you see that they consistently kept the þ as an unvoiced dental fricative, and ð as a voiced dental fricative. Why has Middle English swapped out the letter ð for þ to be used in both instances?! Why the confusion?

Upon the advent of early printing in the 16th century, the thorn was further erroneously used. Typefaces created in mainland Europe, whether from Germany or Italy, did not include the Thorn as a letter. They didn’t have to, as it’s not a letter or sound that is recognised by Germans, Italians, or French. Greeks, yes, but Greek uses a different alphabet. So, what did they do in English to combat this loss of a letter?! A shortcut, namely: to use the letter “y” in words that were spelt with a þ. They look close enough, right? Perhaps not in this blog with my sans serif font, but if you examine the earliest Blackletter typefaces, you will see a resemblance.

Thorn and Eth - 3-03

Keep in mind that the “Ye” here is actually pronounced “The”. “Ye” pronounced with a “y” means “you all”. Confusing? Yes, this is what happens when you use one letter to have different phonetic values, you must rely on the context, which means you must have deep knowledge of the language.

Fraktur or Blackletter, being the choice typeface of the time period, had the þ resembling a “y”, but with a thin line on top. At first, it was not an issue. The þ did not have it’s own stamp in imported typefaces, so the y was a good enough substitute. Printers and publishers would exchange the þ with “y”, but it would still be read and pronounced as “th”.

So the word “the”, which was hand-written as “þe” became printed as “ye” – pronounced with a “th”, but written with a “y”. The issue with Thorn dwindling as the Y gradually took its place, EVEN when typefaces began to change, because the grapheme þ was not made widely available for printing! The loss of þ is the fault of the limitations of the early printing press to accommodate the needs of Middle English orthography.

I must now introduce the other character responsible for producing the “th” sound (of another variety). There is a difference between the “th”s found in the following two sentences:
(1) Þink of your healþ – think of your health.
(2) Ðey are togeðer – they are together.
The “th” variant of sentence (2) is known as “Eth”.

Ð or ð – “Eth”
Originated from the D/d, and is still used in Iceland today

Ðe Þerapists þanked ðe Фarmacists фor ðeir quick þinking skills. Ðat’s a relief!
The therapists thanked the pharmacists for their quick thinking skills. That’s a relief!

During the adoption of Latin alphabet in England, the “Eth” was modified from the Roman letter “D / d”, in order to symbolise the voiced dental fricative in words like “weather”. “Eth” became obsolete far earlier than the “Thorn”. It’s a tragic story.
First off, we do not see the capital form of the Eth (Ð). In all proper nouns and words beginning with Ð, the Þ would take its place in the written form, but when those same words were read out loud, they were pronounced with the “Eth”. Eth is only seen in the middle of a word, in which case, it would always be in its minuscule form (ð).

It’s like the Eth got fired and Thorn got a promotion, but Eth is still doing all the work.

As the “Eth” was used seldomly in writing and printing, the “Thorn” gradually took control for both unvoiced AND voiced dental fricative sounds. So words like weaðer became weaþer, even though the ð is in the middle of the word here. Was this due to simplification of characters, or was it the fact that writers and printers grew so accustom to replacing Ð/ð with Þ/þ, that it didn’t matter anyway, so they slowly replaced all Eths with Thorns?!!
Eventually, both the Thorn and Eth got fired from their jobs, never gained a full noble status in the alphabet, and both got replaced by the digraph “th”, composed from 2 separate alphabetical letters, “t” and “h”.


Ðe Þeatre of Tragedy
þings ðat led to Þorn and Eð’s demise

(1) The Norman Invasion of 11th century.
(2) Simplification over a long period of time that led to Þ/þ taking over words that Ð/ð were responsible for. Use of Eth dwindled quickly in favour of Thorn to represent both “th” sounds.
(3) Printing press limitations: not having the Þ/þ in typefaces, so Y/y was used instead, due to them sharing a similar appearance.

>>>> Final Thoughts <<<<

Thorn and Eth - Month of August

Ðe monþ of August þrills ðe norðern youþ wiþ ðe promise of having boþ eþereal þunderstorms and sooðing weaðer perfect for smooðies.

The month of August thrills the northern youth with the promise of having both ethereal thunderstorms and soothing weather, perfect for smoothies.

You should be able to read ðis text wiþout struggling. Oh, þink of how much ink one could save wiþout using ðe digraph “th” anymore! Seriously, I have þought about ðis for a very long time. From now on, I shall use ðe letter ð and Ð to symbolise the diagraph “th” in “there” (ðere), and I shall use þ when typing ðe “th” in “thing” (þing). Ðis I plan to do when typing AND writing. I am reviving ðe Old English ways of ðe year 800 CE.
You all should þink about doing ðis, too.

At this point, I am tired of copying and pasting the ðs and þs. In the future, I will add these letters into my keyboard for permanent access.
Just imagine teaching this to your kids. Then once in pre-school, they get called by teacher to write the alphabet, and s/he will include those two letters in addition to the rest of the alphabet. Teacher might be perplexed, but once the kid explains, the teacher would have had a learning experience of their own! Even better is if I could be that teacher — I’d get an opportunity to teach 15-20 kids about these newly revived letters! I might also get fired after receiving complaints from some parents. *shrug*

Before you go, here is a hint to never forget what these graphemes stand for:

You can always remember ðat ðe “þ” sounds like ðe “th” in “thing”, because þ looks like a mouþ wiþ ðe tongue sticking out.
Specimens: :p :b

You can always remember ðat ðe letter “ð” sounds like ðe “th” in “therefore”, because it looks like a bumblebee. Bumblebees make that ððððððð sound.
Specimen: 🐝 ð

>>>> Sources <<<<

Kinder, Hermann and Hilgemann, Werner. The Penguin Atlas of World History, Volume 1. 1974. London: The Penguin Group, 2003.

Historical Association: The Voice for History, “Anglo-Saxons, A Brief History”:

Unknown Author. “The Germanic Languages”.
Studying the History of English. Universität Duisburg-Essen.

YouTube, “The Celtic Languages” by LangFocus:

Haven, Cynthia. “Eth, Thorn, and Ash: They Flunked the Screen Test for our Alphabet”. The Book Haven. Stanford University. August 27, 2013.
Reddit, “Restoring the Eth and Thorn” by user, Glossaphilos:

Surat al Ikhlas

“Surat al Ikhlas”

I would like to share a work of calligraphy I made in the winter of 2014. Here I have Surat al Ikhlas in what was intended to be Kufic Arabic script. Kufic, the oldest form of Arabic script that emerged from borrowing elements of the Nabatean and Syriac abjads, traditionally excludes the i’jam. I’jam, the dots that you see on the Arabic letters, is seen in modern Arabic script to help distinguish some consonants from other consonants. I decided to add the i’jam dots, and also softened the traditional Kufic edginess of the letterforms. I suppose we can classify this piece as Kufesque. I composed the entire Sura in a curved manner so it could hang beside a rounded mirror in an aesthetic fashion.

Oh, before I get carried away: Sura is the Arabic word for “chapter”, but specifically refers to a chapter in the Qur’an. Ikhlaṣ is Arabic for “purity” or “sincerity”, and is derived from the root X-L-Ṣ (khaliṣ: sincere, loyal; pure).

Here is the translation and transliteration of Surat al Ikhlas:

“Say, He is G-d. the one (and only) • G-d, the eternal (the absolute) •
He begetteth not, nor is He begotten • And there is none comparable unto Him”
Qul howa Allahu ahad  Allah-us-samad •
Lem yeled, wa lem youled
 • Wa lem yakun lehu kufwan ahad

 I initially sketched this on a notebook during a weekend of my last semester of college. It took me two months to decide to turn the sketch into a proper piece (I was a full time student, and this was but a leisure activity for me). After I turned in my thesis, finished my internship, and graduated, I took another good look at what I created in Arabic, and then decided . . . hey, why not in Hebrew as well?!

Ikhlas b’ivrit, before the gold leaf application

The ontological and concise nature of this Sura is appealing, and not just from an Islamic or a religious perspective. Many monotheists, whether religious, secular, or agnostic, may find the message of this Sura to be one they can relate to.  This Sura is especially relatable to some one of the Jewish faith, as one of the shared foundations between Islam and Judaism is: “Lam yeled wa lem youled”. In other words, our main idea of the nature of Allah/YH*WH (swt) is the same.  For that reason, I decided to work on a Hebrew version of Suratal Ikhlas as a way to bridge the two religions of Islam and Judaism closer together and to promote the fact that humanity lies beneath the same Creator. I found the translation from Arabic to Hebrew, and practiced a bit with composition. I allowed the text to spiral from upper-right corner, inwards, to create a circle.

In geometric symbolism, circles are shapes that mark divinity and absoluteness, while squares symbolize our mortality and the material world, as the four-points of a square symbolise one ending and another beginning (in contrast to the ‘unending’ form of a circle). Next time you find yourself in a mosque or temple/synagogue, look above at the domes, windows, mosaics, and other polygon shapes that dominate the architecture. When you visualise an octagon, you can see how it lies mid-way between a circle and a square. In other words, such polygons lie between this world and the celestial realm.
That is why domes and arches in sacred buildings are often imperfect/angular circles—because of the symbolism associated with polygons as straddling between the material hemisphere and spiritual hemisphere. To learn more about sacred geometry and mathematical elements found in nature, I highly recommend The Logic of Architecture: Design, Computation, and Cognition by William Mitchell.

I also found the extremely different forms of the two scripts quite fun to play with — Arabic is a very linear script, whilst Hebrew is very squarish and blocky. So, I thought it would be an additionally interesting contrast to have the blocky forms of Hebrew composed in a round layout, as I already had the Arabic version in a curved layout. 
The Names of G-D

The words “Elohim” (later changed to “Eloqim”, upon the request of my Sephardic friend*), and “YH*WH” (occurring twice) in this draft were inked with gold leaf. The “-im” suffix of Eloqim is the plural form of Eloh (Eloh=Allah). However, do remember that the “-im” suggests the Royal We of the Divine, and not the idea that G-D is in multiple parts.

One last thing to point out, is that Allah, Arabic for “G-d”, can be rendered as YH*WH (in Hebrew) when flipped upside down. If you are familiar with both Arabic and Hebrew scripts (btw that makes you awesome), I encourage you to use your imagination. Start with the lower-right corner YH*WH. Since the spiral makes the Hebrew script on that side upside-down, you can easily see how the Hebrew YH*WH can be read as “Allah” in Arabic (the ה read upside down form the letters ا and ل in Arabic). Basically, we tweeked the Hebrew letterforms just a bit, so that when flipped upside down, it resembles the Arabic letterform for Allah. The bar at the top of the ה  was stretched out so that it could resemble the linked letters of the word الله.

Indeed we are all one, under the same One Creator, whether Allah or YH*WH. To be able to write His name once, in a way that is legible in two languages, is reflective of that unifying view.

Although the calligraphy designs are my own work, I cannot take credit for Allah-YH*WH being shown in such a unifying way. Years ago, I found an old kabbalah article online that dissected the word YH*WH and discussed the symbolic attributes of the letters. Then there was an image shown with the word “Allah” beside YH*WH to show how similar the forms are. I tried finding the creative mind who came up with this, but it didn’t look like he was even credited in the article. If I ever find this person, I will link them on this post 🙂 Also, the final version of the Hebrew calligraphy piece in blue ink is no longer in my possession (it was a gift to said Sephardic friend), but I hope to remake a similar one soon.


Foot Notes:
*     Many conservative Jewish people refrain from writing our G-D’s name or having His name (his? its?) in written form in their homes.

Materials Used: Winsor and Newton acrylic ink, applied with rusty calligraphy pens on Bristol paper.



(from) Akkadian syllabary | (to) Hebrew symbolism

First, a brief history lesson:
The earliest Sumerians sailed from [wherever their origins were], and settled along the marshes of southern Mesopotamia. Their predecessors (much earlier Sumerians) scribed on papyrus and vellum (skin), but in their new settlement, they found an abundance of clay; a much more resourceful medium for the scribes! At that point, the Sumerian inscriptions still remained pictographic. What made such complex renderings of early Sumerian pictographs possible, was due to their standard usage of dry, flat, thin, and hard papyrus and vellum. (See chapter “Writing and Learning” in Babylonian Life and History by Sir Ernest Alfred Budge. I am hunting for additional supporting resources.)

Moving on to Clay:
In these marshlands, clay eventually replaced the use of papyrus and vellum; thus, the Sumerian scribes adopted the use of clay slabs as their medium of choice. As the Sumerian scribes picked up the use of clay in the region, in exchange, the non-Sumerian inhabitants of the region gradually adopted the Sumerian pictographic script, and incorporated it into their own (unrelated) language. I don’t call them “natives”, as these inhabitants—Semites—dwelled north of the marshlands in northern Mesopotamia. These inhabitants are known as Akkadians.

As these earliest Akkadians began using a non-Semitic pictographic script to express their Semitic language, they gradually reformed some existing pictographs with established references to refer to different subjects, objects, or ideas. Which is another topic for another time.BET-Evolution-01Both with their distinctive languages, the Sumerians and early Akkadians came into contact with one another…and it was Akkadian, in its spoken and written form, that began to replace Sumerian, to become lingua franca of the greater region, whilst Sumerian remained as the lishanu qudeshu (sacred tongue?). In time, Sumerian became defunct in both spoken and written forms that even Ashurbanipal’s scribes struggled to decipher some of the Sumerian tablets . Once again, another topic for another time.

Elimination of Curves:
We have maintained that both ethnic and linguistic groups adopted the use of clay for their inscriptions. The pictographs that were innovated for use on dry papyrus or vellum had to be modified for simpler application on the new medium: wet slabs of clay. Imagine yourself trying to carve complex imagery on wet clay; so very gloopy!

These modifications were slight: curves and circles on existing pictographs were straightened out into solid lines. Imagine carving solid lines onto wet clay; much more manageable!

With clay, came a new stylus choice: the tapered reed. The wider edge of the reed lead to one end of these solid lines to be thicker and more wedge shaped. This is where these solid lines developed into the wedged lines known as Cuneiform. Grrrrrrrradually, these wedges assumed one of two directions: a wedge either pointed upwards or faced the left (I want to know why and how that process occurred). Even more gradually, these upward and leftward wedged symbols were simplified down to 89 syllables (Old Babylonian) and any association with pictographic references were no longer obvious.

|| Can we say they vanished? — confirmed: p. 153-155, the pictorial association of the pictographs became semi-pictorial, then with the advent of wedges, the “semi-pictorial” wedges developed independently of the pictograph…the wedges (dare I say) developed some character of their own (hehe). Here I go a third time: another topic for another time.

Now, let us take a gander at the evolution of early Akkadian pictographs into later Akkadian cuneiform, and see if we can recognize it using our modern Semitic language skills. The Hebrew ‘B’, ב, carries the symbolic reference of “house”, or “dwelling”. I provided Syriac in the illustration below; one cannot deny the resemblance between the three! BET-Evolution-04Just as the Phoenician alphabet rotated in various degrees will evoke to mind the Greek and Old Italic alphabet (toda raba, Agent-101), and even the Runic all the way in Scandinavia — similarly, we begin to see some resemblance between proto-Semitic cuneiform all the way to our many modern-day Semitic scripts.

But I have given just one comparison that may be far-fetched from a potential theory. I must experiment a little more to justify whether the syllabic development of the earliest forms of Sumero-Akkadian may have influenced upon the symbolic development of early Phoenician and Aramaic (pssst: key words are italicised)!BET-Evolution-05Just to ensure this is not an isolated instance and I am not just hallucinating a trivial theory, I will take my pick on another character from the Phoenician or Aramaic alphabet and work my way backwards to see if I can pinpoint the Akkadian variant of the same symbol in its reference AND its appearance.

Albeit, a character’s appearance will have evolved through the centuries and millennia, we can track the way the character evolved by lining up each character by chronology and script (same script like Old Babylonian and Neo-Babylonian, Neo-Assyrian, and Achaemenian Persian, OR different scripts, like Phoenician, Akkadian, Biblical Hebrew, Nabatean, or Syriac). Then, we can examine the traits, new and/or discarded, side by side. Even the meaning can change over time, like gimel (Hebrew) / jamal (Arabic) means both ”camel” as well as “beautiful“ Arabic.

After tracing backwards with several characters, I will have enough instances to develop a theory and to analyse each of these instances even deeper, which yields to stronger evidence. I am not an expert linguist, Semanticist, or Semiticist, so my information in this post is not to be relied on.

I will return next week with my follow-up experiment.