By a quick show of hands, how many of you think that the ye in the above picture is actually pronounced “ye”? Yeah, I thought so. Congratulations, you’re all wrong.
You’re right if you think that ye was used as a definite article in Old and Middle English (i.e. between the 5th and 15th centuries, give or take), and you’re also right if you think that it means the same thing as our Modern English the. However, what most people don’t seem to know is that it didn’t only mean the same thing as the, it was also pronounced the same way.
Back in the olden days, there was a letter in the English alphabet that doesn’t exist in Modern English anymore. That letter was called thorn. It was written Þ or þ and it was used where nowadays we use the digraphs Th and th, respectively. E.g. the was written þe and that was written þat. Over time, þe þorn lost its ascender (i.e. þe bit of þe vertical bar þat extends towards þe top), and it came to resemble anoþer letter we don’t use any longer, þe wynn, which was written Ƿ or ƿ. In þose days, all writing was done by hand, and if you’re anyþing like me, you’ll know þat handwriting can be rather sloppy at times, which is why þe þorn eventually became almost indistinguishable from þe letter Y or y. But it didn’t matter much because by þis time (roughly þe mid-15þ-century) þe þorn had already been widely replaced by þe th digraph and was mostly only used in abbreviations of þe word the anymore, and þat abbreviation would look like þis: þe, except in some scribes’ sloppy handwriting it looked rather more like in the picture on the right. Now if you imagine the top arc of the ascender-less þ not quite closed or even completely missing, you see where this is going.
Þen came þe printing press. Invented in – and exported to England from – mainland Europe around 1450, it didn’t have type fonts for þe letter þ, and since þe þ, in þe rare instances where it was still used, namely in þe abbreviation of þe definite article the (þe), so closely resembled þe letter y anyway, it was represented in þe early printed texts in England as yͤ, which eventually became ye.
Long story short, ye, alþough þus written, was never pronounced “ye” but always “the”. Except of course where it didn’t represent þe definite article the but the second-person, plural, personal pronoun ye, as in the Christmas Carol God rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, or in the expression Hear ye, hear ye. That one was always written and pronounced as “ye”.
I bet ye didn’t know þat, did ye?
Personally, I would love seeing þe þ re-introduced into þe English language. Unusual characters such as ä, å, æ, ñ, ö, œ, ø, š, or ß give a language, well, character, and I’ve never quite understood why þe letter-combination th would be pronounced the way it is anyway. Try pronouncing t and h in rapid succession. It doesn’t sound anyþing remotely like þ. A þ would make so much more sense, not least because along with the letter o it would be þe only one in þe English language þat actually resembles the shape of your mouþ as you say it. Don’t ye þink? ;-þ