Word Origin & History

A sound found chiefly in words of O.E., O.N. or Gk. origin, unpronounceable by Normans and many other Europeans. In Gk., the sound corresponds etymologically to Skt. -dh- and Eng. -d-; and it was represented graphically by -TH- and at first pronounced as a true aspirate (as still in Eng. outhouse, shithead,
etc.). But by 2c. B.C.E. the Gk. letter theta was in universal use and had the modern "-th-" sound. Latin had neither the letter nor the sound, however, and the Romans represented Gk. theta by -TH-, which they generally pronounced, at least in Late Latin, as simple "-t-" (passed down to Romanic languages, e.g. Sp. termal "thermal," teoria "theory," teatro "theater"). In Gmc. languages it represents PIE -t- and was common at the start of words or after stressed vowels. To represent it, O.E. and O.N. used the characters ð "eth" (a modified form of -d-) and þ "thorn," which originally was a rune. O.E., unlike O.N., seems never to have clearly matched the two versions of the sound ("hard" and "soft") to the two letters. The digraph -th- sometimes appears in early O.E., on the Roman model, and it returned in M.E. with the Fr. scribes, driving out eth by c.1250, but thorn persisted, especially in demonstratives (þat, þe, þis, etc.), even as other words were being spelled with -th-. The advent of printing dealt its death-blow, however, as types were imported from continental founders, who had no thorn. For a time y was used in its place (esp. in Scotland), because it had a similar shape, hence ye for the in historical tourist trap olde shoppes (it was never pronounced "ye," only spelled that way). The awareness that some L. words in t- were from Gk. th- encouraged over-correction in Eng. and created unetymological forms such as Thames and author, while some words borrowed from Romanic languages preserve, on the Roman model, the Gk. -th- spelling but the simple Latin "t" pronunciation (e.g. Thomas and thyme).
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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