My understanding is that Old English had two letters, thorn and eth, which were used interchangeably to represent the sound th as in thin or father.

Intuitively, one might think that one of these letters would 'win', and replace the other.

Instead, we lost both of these letters and use the digraph th instead.

Why did this happen?


My understanding is that Old English had two letters, thorn and eth, which were used interchangeably to represent the sound th as in thin or father.

Pretty much. In some languages they were distinct, but in English, either letter could be used for voiced or voiceless.

Intuitively, one might think that one of these letters would 'win', and replace the other.

Indeed: thorn (þ) won, and eth (ð) died out.

Instead, we lost both of these letters and use the digraph th instead.

Eth was lost early, within Old English; thorn survived all the way into Early Modern English, and is found in the first printing of the King James Bible. (Norman) French influences brought about some use of th, but þ was still widely popular and universally understood.

But German, French, Italian, and other prominent languages of the time didn't use thorn, and thus typefaces imported from Europe didn't include it. So in printed books, thorn generally had to be replaced either with th, or with the closest available character, y; the latter was readable, but somewhat annoying and unintuitive (since þ and y are pronounced nothing alike).

So the convention of using th took over, and þ vanished entirely. The use of y survives only in archaicisms like "ye olde shoppe", where it's now pronounced /j/ instead.

And English-speakers, understanding that revenge was a dish best served cold, went on to impose ASCII on the world and destroy dozens and dozens of other languages' unique letters in the same way. All of which could have been avoided if Johannes Gutenberg had stuck to Unicode from the beginning.

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    (Note: the last paragraph is not to be taken seriously. Johannes Gutenberg had very good reasons not to use Unicode from the beginning, such as living several centuries before Unicode was proposed.) – Draconis Jul 5 '19 at 23:05
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    Unicode compliance with the full emoji set would have been cost-prohibitive for most small-time printers. – chrylis -cautiouslyoptimistic- Jul 6 '19 at 6:56
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    More than this, it was the influence of the Normans who brought over the pure Latin alphabet and had a distaste for the "weird" English characters (not that they wrote in English initially). It was the same with some other spelling normalisation rules. In any case, the Normans made up the vast majority of literate society following the Conquest, and their influence was profound, even as the native English made a resurgence (having been heavily influenced by Anglo-Norman and later Parisian French). – Noldorin Jul 6 '19 at 15:06
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    @chrylis now I want to see a lead type set for the emoji. – melissa_boiko Jul 6 '19 at 15:12
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    so why was th chosen? – tox123 Jul 6 '19 at 16:15

The explanation I remember seeing for the rise of the digraph “th” and fall of the letters thorn and eth in English spelling is influence from French spelling habits.

You can see more details if you do a search for "digraph" in the paper "The evolution of English dental fricatives: variation and change", by Mateusz Jekiel (2012). Note that the history of the spelling of non-sibilant dental fricatives in English is fairly complicated and includes a lot of variation.

The digraph "th" had actually been used early on in the Old English period (alongside the letter "d" in medial or final positions). Jekiel says

According to Hogg (1992b: 76-77), the <th> digraph appeared first by the end of the 8th c. in early OE manuscripts, as it was borrowed from the Irish and spread by monks who taught Latin. Furthermore, <th> also appeared in the 9th c. Old Saxon, where the grapheme represented only the voiceless dental fricative.

(p. 52)

The use of the letter thorn lasted substantially past the Old English period, and even into Early Modern English in certain specific contexts: many function words starting with the th sound had abbreviations starting with thorn, which came to be written in a way that looked like the letter y. This is the source of “ye” as a spelling for the word “the”.

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Here are my notes on the question, a summary of most important linguistic research with relevant quotes; perhaps someone, who is more into linguistic theory, might find them useful.

Old English

Hogg 1992 (2005):

  1. “Orthographic usage was reasonably stable during the Old English period”; “Anglo-Saxon manuscripts of Latin normally kept to the Latin spelling conventions and alphabet, and in the earliest vernacular manuscripts the spelling system remained close to that of Latin texts, usually of Irish origin.”; thus, he continues,

“at first, we do not find spellings with <æ>, <w>, <þ> or <ð>” (p. 71; emphasis mine - Alex B.), Hoggs calls the use of <þ> or <ð>” the Anglo-Saxon innovations (p. 77) because in the very earliest manuscripts, especially from the north, we find the digraph th or the simple graph d (Hogg 1992/2011 mentions Bede(M), EpGl and the later LVD (p. 33);

  1. <þ> and <ð> “were in principle interchangeable with one another, whatever the generality of their usage or the habits of individual scribes” (p. 76), for instance, he quotes the following spelling variants from Beowulf, syððan (line 6), syðþan (line 132), syþðan (line 283), and syþþan (line 604).
  2. <þ> and <ð> “must have been used by the last quarter of the seventh century”;
  3. Differences in usage: at first, <ð> was the most frequent choice (up to about the time of Alfred); later, <þ> was more and more used, mainly restricted to initial position (with some occasional instances in medial position and rare in final position).

ð eth (or edh): “the native English term appears to have been ðæt” (Robinson 1973: 451); Hogg 1992: 75 adds that since the nineteenth century it has been known under its current name (Robinson 1973: 451 mentions its current name was borrowed from Modern Icelandic but Hoggs claims that “this is uncertain”).

digraph th: “appears to have been borrowed from Irish” (Hogg, p. 77);

Middle English

Lass 1992 writes that “<ð> began to yield to <þ> in the thirteenth century, though it remains sporadically through the fourteenth” (p. 36) - against an incorrect assertion in one of the other answers posted here. He adds that in Early Middle English <þ> was the most common graphical representation for /θ, ð/, although the digraph th ‘reappears’ in the twelfth century and gradually ousts <þ>.

Upward and Davidson 2011: “Through the ME period this TH was increasingly adopted in place of the OE symbols Þ and Ð to represent the native Eng voiced and voiceless sounds /ð, θ/” (p. 160). They list it under “Spelling changes introduced by Anglo-Norman scribes” (p. 176, emphasis mine - Alex B.).

Upward and Davidson 2011 mention that this gradual change was completed by about the end of the 15th century” (p. 176).

In passim, they make an accurate observation, almost a truism I'd say, about TH "being more economical and not susceptible to misreading as T+H" (p. 199, emphasis mine - Alex B.).

They add that “the digraph TH is not normally found in Eng words of pure Lat (as opposed to Graeco-Lat) or Fr derivation” (with some exceptions: faith, author, authority, anthem, and thyme) – see p. 199-200 for more details.


As I wrote elsewhere, drawing on Blake 2012, after the Norman Conquest, English monasteries started receiving a lot of monks trained in France who started copying OE texts applying spelling practices found in the languages they were familiar with (Old French and Latin?). Those practices were further spread by the other monks whose native language was English but who got trained primarily in Old French and a bit of Latin - Cecily Clark (Clark 1992) calls them the Gallicizing scribes.


In Scragg 1974 we can read that William Caxton, the first English printer, usually used the digraph th and only occasionally used a modified form of <þ>, the latter survived in private documents and in some printed books until the seventeenth century, esp. in the contracted forms of the definite article ye and demonstrative yt (p. 2).

But by that time th had already practically ousted <þ>, which had happened before printing.

For example, here's a passage from Raoul Lefèvre (translated by William Caxton), The Recuyell of the Historyes of Troye (1473).

cf. the following quote from Jensen 2012:

"The gradual loss of <þ> in favour of <th> in the English spelling system has traditionally been explained by the introduction of print. However, Stenroos (2006: 10) argues that the replacement of <þ> was a gradual process that had begun long before the advent of printing. She bases her argument on the following three points. Firstly, the use of <th> appears in the southern part of England already as early as ca 1300 and grows steadily more common through the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Secondly, Scragg (1974: 67) suggests that printing and scribal traditions may have been relatively isolated from each other until well into the sixteenth century. Thirdly, it is not completely obvious that the carrying over of thorn into printing would have posed an insurmountable problem: some types used in England did include thorn, and the letter ‘y’ was always available."

Re: father

In Old English, this word was always spelled with the simple graph d. The PDE spelling with the digraph th is a Middle English innovation.

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