My kids, comedians that they are, have a favorite joke to pull on me. When we finish reading, I always ask if they noticed any words that they didn’t understand. Without fail, someone in the group will say, “The!” I always smile and shake my head, but it occurred to me this weekend that, although they’re being (in the words of one of the kindergarteners’ moms) “smart butts,” they still probably understand “the” far less than they think they do. Most people take it for granted, but I think today is a good day to learn about…
Did you know there are two different entries for “the” in the dictionary? Look it up if you don’t believe me. They are rightly categorized under two different headings because they are not only completely different parts of speech, but also because they have two different etymologies. The first “the” is one you’re probably most likely to come up with if asked to define “the.” It’s the definite article, the word which denotes a noun as being specific. The second “the” is an adverb, and while you no doubt use the form that falls under that category all the time with great fluency if you’re a native speaker of English, trying to sort out the one form from the other by looking at the dictionary definitions might give you a headache. Let’s just say that it’s usually used in idioms with comparatives (e.g., “the sooner the better”).
The difference in their histories is also subtle. “The” (1) comes through Middle English from Old English and is an alteration of the masculine demonstrative pronoun se. (Modern English demonstrative pronouns include this, that, these, etc., if your grammar classes never covered the not-often-useful terminology.) Se became “the” under the influence of the other demonstrative pronouns, some of which began with “th-“. If that change seems strange to you, try saying “s” and “th” in quick succession. The difference between them is only a tiny shift and the timing of the vocal chord vibration.
The less common “the” comes, oddly enough, from one of the pronouns that had a hand in influencing the change in se. It followed the same path, coming through Middle English from Old English, where it originated as the instrumental form (thy, the) of the neuter demonstrative pronoun thaet. The same word, actually, from which we get one of our more common modern demonstrative pronouns: “that.”
If that fun little bit of geek grammar wasn’t actually fun for you, let me throw you an amusing little bone about the historical orthography of “the.” English, coming from Germanic, originally used a runic writing system, which functions a bit differently from an alphabetic system like we use today. When the Romans were tromping all over Gaul and Briton, they left behind their Roman alphabet, which interbred with the runes to produce a system where runes stood in for sounds in English that were not represented by the Roman alphabet. One of these symbols was called “thorn.” It stood for “th-” and eventually came to be written something like a “Y.” When you see a sign that says something to the effect of “Ye Olde Place to Buy Stuffe,” the “Ye” would historically not have been pronounced “ye.”
It would have been pronounced “the.”