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:
|Dative||þǽm, þám||þǽre||þǽm, þám||þǽm, þám|
|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.”