A Short History of the Word “The”

Note: I recently added a part 2 to this entry here.

I’ve always been fascinated by the evolution of languages. But how is it that even a language’s most fundamental words, such as the definite article “the,” came into being? How is it that a word like that could evolve, and why would it need to in the first place?

English is of course a descendent of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) and comes down to us in its present form through Proto-Germanic, picking up Norse, French, and Latin among others along the way. It was the language spoken by the Anglo-Saxon people under many dialects from about 500 to about 1100 when the Norman invasion began the transformation to Middle English.

Old English was, like PIE, a fully declined, gendered language. This made word order somewhat less important because word-endings stood in for many participles. In these types of languages, adjectives and articles (which are really a type of adjective) generally have case, gender and number agreement with the noun they are associated with. The direct ancestor of our definite article “the” is the demonstrative pronoun “se” which is declined as follows:

Masculine Feminine Neuter Plural
Nominative se sío, séo þæt þá
Accusative þone, þæne þá þæt þá
Dative þǽm, þám þǽre þǽm, þám þǽm, þám
Genitive þæs þǽre þæs þára (þǽra)
Instrumental þý, þon þý, þon

Depending on case and number, it has such meanings as: the; that; that one; who; which; that which; this; he; she, them, those, etc.

Two things occurred to give us the current undeclined word “the.” First, by Late Old English, the forms “se and séo” became “þe” influenced by the other forms which all began with þ. Second, throughout the course of Middle English, the whole declension and gender system began to give way, so that all the other forms other than the nominative and genitive disappeared. Because of conflicting declination and gender structures of the different languages that were being introduced as Old English began to morph into Middle English, such as Old Norse then Latin and French after the Norman invasion, these structures collapsed into the system we have now. Whether the start of the use of þ in the nominative occurred because system was phasing out of use is unclear.

Þ (thorn) and ð (eth) were runic letters used for our th. The þ was used for the voiceless fricative sound of th as in thin; this sound is often represented as a Θ in dictionaries. The ð was used for the voiced fricative sound as in that, although they were often used in place of one another. So by Late Old English the word “se” had become “þe” which was pronounced as “Θe.”

When written by medieval scribes the thorn looked a lot like the letter y which led to much confusion even to the scribes themselves. The use of y in place of þ in printing has been attributed to William Caxton, the first printer in England, who brought typeset over from Europe which lacked the þ. It still survives today in intentionally quaint spellings like “Ye Olde Antique Shoppe.” Most text was still written by hand though, so the confusion continued. Latin had always used the digraph th and as Latin and French gained in influence it eventually replaced þ by the end of the Middle English period. Chaucer for example, almost always uses “the.”

Thus the Old English word “se” in all its declined forms, recorded in the most ancient writings, had become the familiar “the” by the 15th century, completely replacing the earlier forms as the Modern English era began. (I should also note that our word “that” also emerged from “se” evolving from the nominative and accusative neuter singular forms, taking on its own demonstrative meaning.)

Linguistic change is, of course, constant. English is currently undergoing a fairly major transformation right now: the dropping of the use of the –ly ending on adverbs. This is slowly becoming more accepted as standard English usage, so that the adjectivial form is being used in place of the adverb more and more often. Witness Apple Computer’s old motto, “Think Different” as opposed to the more grammatically correct, “Think Differently.”

Most of this material was gathered from the Oxford English Dictionary and The English Language: A Historical Introduction by Charles Barber both excellent books.

» Posted: Saturday, February 26, 2005 | Comments (13) | Permanent Link


thanks for the help with me homework dude now i will get a 3a yippee!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

» Posted by Anonymous on March 16, 2008 02:10 PM

this is really intresting P.S the face has a really long nose because it is me lol

» Posted by computer nerd:--------) on March 16, 2008 02:12 PM

wow that was boring. i never really wanted to know the origin of the word the and i barely understood it but would you mind doing the origin of the word “it” please i think that would be fascinating!! I also would like to see color make it appealing to look at. Come on who wants to look at boring black and white!!

~Love your average everyday 13year old girl!!!!

» Posted by Courtney Eckstrom on May 5, 2008 12:55 PM

Hey thanks for the information. Its interesting how such symbols dictate actions, thoughts, and objects. Really, i wonder if before man developed language did he communicate by a more sophisticated means? by not vocalizing their thoughts they might have expressed themselves through body language and direct actions. I dont put direct mind to mind communication past them either. Though perceived as primitive, really how can we say it was if we were not experiencing it for ourselves? Maybe it was
better understood by them in their time, much like our language is better understood by us in our time. I guess there really is a time and a place for everything.
I like to think about this sorta stuff, a skeptic you could say.
But then again you could say alot of things.

» Posted by Rolando on December 2, 2008 05:19 AM

Hi.i’m from I.R.IRAN .thanks alot for your intresting help .

» Posted by Mehrzad on February 21, 2009 01:28 PM

Thx. For fifty years I’ve always wondered and now I know.

» Posted by DennyCraneWHU on January 23, 2010 03:00 AM

Can you please delete my comment? the one march 5 2008? it wasnt even me and it bothers me

» Posted by Anonymous on April 30, 2010 05:31 PM

blaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh! the word the is a lot less interesting than i thought…but then again i only read the first paragraph and then got bored (:

» Posted by Anonymous on October 4, 2010 12:11 PM

tank you for help me!

» Posted by minoo on February 18, 2011 10:45 AM

wow this was fun
thanks for letting me kill 5 minutes with an informative history of the most used word in the english language!
(no sarcasm)

» Posted by Wet on November 17, 2011 03:11 PM

This explanation is very interesting. As a child, I wondered where the word “the” came from and now I know.

» Posted by Anonymous on August 19, 2012 11:54 AM

well that was…….interesting…… i never realized EVERY word had some history to it…. that was very time consuming to read though

» Posted by Cheyenne Lara on October 15, 2012 07:39 PM

LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE!!! You are my new language hero.

» Posted by Aria on November 7, 2012 08:51 PM