By Ron Dale

YE OLDE ENGLISH: Have you ever wondered why the word ‘the’ was written as ye in past centuries? Although the Ancient Chinese had a form of offset printing, the printing press with variable type was invented in Germany by Johannes Gutenberg about 1439 and brought to England by William Caxton. This created a difficulty for Caxton as in the German language there was no digraph ‘th’ for words like ‘the’ and other common English words. This must be qualified by stating there is at least one German word which had the letters ‘th’ in it, but it was never pronounced as ‘th’ as we do in the English language, with the tongue protruding between the lips. Where a ‘th’ word did exist in German it is pronounced ‘t’ as in Thűringen for example ( today a German national state, in the 15th century this was not part of Germany). This explains why older Germans could not get their tongues around such English words containing ‘th’ which were usually pronounced as ‘zee’ in wartime films.  Younger generation Germans who have been taught English correctly at school can pronounce our ‘th’ correctly.

     However, Caxton, back in England with his German printing press, was faced with a problem. He had no letter with which to print the sound ‘th’ and he had lots of English words containing this sound, including the very popular word ‘the.’ He did have one letter known as a ‘thorn’ which printed out as þ.  This symbol was used throughout the Tudor period for ‘th’ but eventually as the medieval font in use at this time showed that ‘þ’ and ‘y’ were very similar, it became the habit to use ‘y’ for the thorn symbol as it was a familiar letter. The word ‘ye’ has never been an English word. It has always been pronounced as ‘the’ but printed differently. Today ‘ye’ is more or less archaic except when using quotations such as ‘oh ye of little faith’ etcetera. Pub signs may still be painted as ‘Ye Olde Black Swan,’ but even centuries ago this would have been pronounced as ‘The Old Black Swan.’

A GERMAN LANGUAGE DISCOVERY: As I am fond of listening to and singing German schlager (hit) songs, quite by accident I noticed something strange which may have its origins in the above absence of ‘th’ from the German language and the similarity which seems to exist in our own language and German, strange as this may sound as the two tongues normally sound quite different, although there are similarities in Yorkshire dialect. (Please do not request a song as I am fully booked!!)

     I noticed that most German words which begin with the letter ‘d’ can quite often be partially translated to English simply by switching the ‘d’ for ‘th.’ For example, the German word for thunder is donner. Take away the letter ‘d’ and insert ‘th’ gives thonner.  The oft-used word die’ in German thus gives us thie’ for a word which means the and du means ‘thou’ in German. As can be seen, anyone with absolutely no knowledge of German could, in these circumstances, be able to translate most ‘d’ words.  Another good example is the German word denke, which becomes ‘thenke,’ meaning think and danke is German for thanks, thanke.

     The following list gives a few other examples if you substitute ‘th’ for the letter ‘d:’  Deine means ‘thine’ ... dahin means thither or yonder...durstig means thirsty...drei means three... dick means thick (or fat)...darum means therefore or that is why... dann means then...durch means through (not so close this one), but ding translates perfectly to ‘thing.’ There are many more examples and it might be fun to try your own ‘d’ words. Exceptions do exist, for example drinnen and draussen.. which mean ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ (this can probably be explained away if historically these translated as the archaic words ‘therein’ and ‘there-out’).  From this discovery it seems obvious that the letter ‘d’ in German printing eventually replaced the archaic runic symbol þ which had become ‘th’ in English. There is an obvious connection here, not easy to explain as I do not believe in coincidences.


The above phenomenon of the German language has its equivalent in the French language. Again this I discovered purely by accident. Although I have not been able to discover the historical reason for it in this case, I feel there must be one. Several French words begin with the letter ‘e’ with an accent over it, e.g. ’é’ which signifies the pronunciation should be ‘ay’ and not ‘ee.’ An example is the word ‘école’ which means ‘school’ and is pronounced as ‘aycol.’  Here the ‘é’ has been translated into English as the letter ‘s.’ Another example is to be found in the word ‘étranger.’ Substitute an ‘s’ here and we find a perfect translation of the French word to the English word ‘stranger’ or foreigner in other words. An examination of a French dictionary will highlight many other examples. I leave this historical explanation to the Francophiles.


Having spent several days perusing 14th and 15th century documents I found it challenging and amusing to decipher some names of familiar Hertfordshire villages and towns in our vicinity from their archaic spellings. The following is a list of these for others to try to identify: Scorteford, Stythenhach, Sabrychesworth, Braghhyngge, Cruce Rosie (Rosy Cross), Pokeriche, Seynt Albones, (an easy one), Sauiecombe, Idylstre, Byssheytherteshead, Berle. See end of this paper for explanation if stuck.


Apart from the very common names for ladies of this early period (late 1300s and early 1400s) such as Isobel, Agnes, Maud and Alice, there are many unusual names which are unknown today. Amongst these are Pernel, Albreda, Helewise (Eloise), Letice, Benet, Felice, Amice, Avice, Diamanda,  Christian and Julian (today used for boys), Christiana, Naverine, Sabine, Willemia, Clemence, Idonie, Meliora, Augustine, Magota.  Surely a few of these would be suitable for modern use and perhaps they should be resurrected. Three from this period which are surprisingly still popular: Amy, Rose and Alecia.


The Domesday Book of 1086 listed the owners of land at the time of the 1066 invasion and at the time of the survey in 1086.It listed 30 households in the village of Stanestede but in general only named the land-owners who were not normally resident. One exception was a Saxon named Gothmund who was owner and tenant in 1066 and was still owner and tenant in 1086, which was exceptional There was a priest named Peter and a man named Bettica was a tenant in 1086 and described as Wulwin of Eastwick’s man. (Bettica is today an Italian family name).            


It seems hard to believe that we could have slaves in our village, but 2 slaves were certainly listed in the Domesday Book of 1086 and before the arrival of the Normans there would have been far more. According to the statistics of the Survey, about 10% of the population were slaves throughout the country.

     Writing in 1066, Wulfstan, Bishop of Worcester, described what it was like. At every large fair could be seen male and female slaves for sale.  Describing a slave market in Bristol, Wulfstan recorded:

     ...queues of the wretches of both sexes shackled together- and you would have pitied them; those who were beautiful and those who were in the flower of youth, were daily prostituted and sold amidst much wailing to the barbarians. Oh execrable cruelty! Wretched dishonour! Men who remind us of beasts to sell into slavery their nearest relatives because of their necessities.

      Some slaves were prisoners of war: captured Vikings were often chained and sold into slavery and pirates regularly raided coastal towns in North Devon and stole people for sale as slaves in Ireland. The slave trade was diminishing in England under the Normans as the Catholic Church frowned on it. But in Ireland and Scotland without the influence of Norman rulers, slavery flourished.  Thanks mainly to the efforts of Bishop Wulfstan and others, the slave trade was made illegal in 1102. It did not cease altogether then, but serfdom, a less harsh form of slavery, gradually replaced it.

     Wulfstan (died 1095) was a very popular man and was one of a handful of Englishmen to be allowed large holdings of land. In Worcestershire alone, he held at least 12 manors.

*Stortford, Stevenage, Sawbridgeworth, Braughing, Royston, Puckeridge, St.   Albans (an easy one), Sacombe, Elstree, Bushey Heath, Barley.