Monday, March 8, 2010

Apple #443: The Letter J

I happen to have an interest in the letter J.  Plus, the other day, I got to thinking about it.  It's pretty unusual, how in some languages it's pronounced like a Y, or how it sometimes acts like an I.  That seems unusual for a consonant to act like a vowel sometimes. Well, the letter Y does that, but then, Y and J seem to be distant cousins or something.

Good old J.
(Image from Like a Warm Cup of Coffee)

Anyway, I've been ruminating on the letter, so I'll tell you some of the things I found out about it.  Then I think I might do a series of entries about things that begin with the letter J.

  • In Latin, which is the mother of many Romance languages and many words in the English language, J didn't used to exist. Instead of J, they used I.  And they pronounced it like a Y.
  • When my brother was taking Latin in high school, he came home one day and informed us all that Julius Caesar did not pronounce his name the way we do, as Joolius Seeser.  Instead, he said, it was pronounced Yoolius Kiyser.  He went around saying "Yoolius Kiyser," "Yoolius Kiyser" for days afterward so I have never forgotten this fact.
  • When I got to the age where I took Latin myself, I discovered that the names of Juno and Jupiter (a.k.a. Hera and Zeus in Greek), were written as Iuno and Iupiter.  Which looked all kinds of strange to me and thus I never forgot that, either.
  • A lot of things changed about Latin when it hit the medieval years and the influence of the Catholic church.  But it still didn't grow a J, so to speak.
  • It wasn't until the 15th century or so that the J started showing up. As one person interested in languages noted, the j is a Johnny-come-lately.

(Drawn by Dylan Byrd at Byrd Drawings)

  • What I find interesting is not only that different languages started using the letter j rather late in the game, but also that not everybody used it the same way.  Here are some of the ways the letter j is pronounced in various languages:
  • German: j = y (e.g., jaeger meaning hunter)
  • Dutch: j by itself = y (jaar meaning year); ij together  = long i (e.g., ijsvrij meaning snow day);
  • Finnish: j = y (e.g., jäätelö meaning ice cream); ij together = long i or not pronounced (lukija meaning reader)
  • French: j = soft g (jour meaning day). The French refer to the j as "i-grec" or "the Greek i."
  • Portuguese: j = zsh (jogar meaning to play)
  • Spanish: j = h (jalapeños meaning hot peppers) 
  • English: j = dzh (jingle). This sound is really difficult to represent, by the way. A lot of non-native English speakers have trouble learning how to pronounce it. The official linguistic representation of the sound is this: dʒ. But if you don't know what that ʒ means, you have no idea how to make that sound.  So I've chosen to describe it as dzh.  

In American Sign Language, the j is one of the few letters you draw in the air.
(Photo from How You Build It)

    • Italian: still doesn't have a j. The soft g sound is made with gi (e.g., giungla meaning jungle).  But then, Italian doesn't really have an h, either.  My Italian teacher told us that there's a saying in Italian, "not worth an h," which is a way of disparaging something.
    • Japanese: j = dzh as in English; sometimes j = zsh (jigen meaning dimension or in anime slang, a tunnel which leads to another dimension)
    •  OK, I don't know when the Japanese started using their j, but I wanted to throw that one in there because their whole country starts with the letter J.

    The letter J:  fleeting and changeable as letters written in sand? (Your Apple Lady can get melodramatic about the alphabet)
    (Photo from Cook-n-Knit)

    All right, all right, Jason [see comments].  I'll try to answer how all this differentiation came about.

    The short answer is that the change is the same as any change that happen in a language or alphabet, which is that people started doing it another way and it stuck.  You may remember this from the entry about dollar signs, for example.  Exactly why these changes happen is very difficult, if not impossible, to answer. So really the best answer I can give you is a description of the process where we can see that change occurring.

    There are very few sources -- reputable or otherwise -- online that discuss this process.  So I'm going to rely, once again, on my ever-trusty copy of the OED to address this thorny progression.  (I can't recommend this text enough, by the way.  It is an endless source of edification and enjoyment to me.)

    The micrographically-reproduced two-volume set of the Oxford English Dictionary: this girl's best friend. I got it for $30 from the Book of the Month club many years ago.  You can also subscribe to the more updated online version at

    The OED's discussion of the letter J at the beginning of its J entries runs almost 3 columns in very very tiny print.  I will do my best to summarize while maintaining clarity and accuracy.
    • The development of the letter j as we know it is two-fold: what happened to its pronunciation, and what happened to the way it was written or printed.
    • The two aspects -- how it is pronounced and how it is written -- naturally influenced each other. For clarity's sake, I will take them in turn.

    • In the oldest, perhaps original form of Latin, in words where the i preceded a vowel (iactus, iam, maior, peior), the pronunciation of that diphthong (two vowels together) came to sound like a y.
    • Some time before the 6th century -- here I must quote from the OED:
    this y-sound had, by compression in articulation and consequent development of an initial 'stop', become a consonantal diphthong, passing through a sound (dy), akin to that of our di, de, in odious, hideous, to that represented in our phonetic symbolization by (). 
    • To paraphrase, people started to change the way they made that y-sound in words like iactus and maior.  In the same way that we sometimes sort of jam the letters de and di together in hideous and odious, people started jamming those vowels together. The sound changed so that instead of being an all-vowel breathy sound, people started to involve the tongue -- the stop -- in making the sound.  Exactly why this happened the OED doesn't say, only that it did.
    • Meanwhile, things were changing for the letter g, too.  Originally it was only pronounced as a hard g, as in words like guess or girl.  But in words where the g was followed by some vowel sounds, the hard g sound changed and softened, and, over the course of centuries, came to sound more like the dʒ (j) sound.
    • The soft g was especially popular in places where people spoke what is now French.  Around the time of the Norman Conquest (when the French beat the English), a lot of English words picked up on that soft g from the French.  The English kept that sound, even though, over time, the French vocabulary eventually lost the soft g and went more for an all-out soft j, which could be represented as ʒ or zhe.  
    • In Germany, however, they weren't as interested in the soft g.  They were hanging onto the i = y sound at the beginning of their words.  I suspect that it's because the Germans were a bit more hard-core about reading and keeping up with classical Latin.  Another factor was that they were writing in Blackletter (see the section on Printing). Regardless of the reason, they hung onto Latin's use of the I as Y as in words like Iuno and Iupiter.  

    Blackletter calligraphy in a page from Piers Plowman in Latin
    (Image from Typography 01)

    • So this is why the French pronounce their j's like the soft g while the Germans pronounce their j's like a y.
    • Another result of this difference between French's interest in the soft g and German's retention of the i = y is that most of the words in English that start with the letter j come from Latin through French.  Some English j- words come from other languages like Hebrew or Arabic, but most of them have some involvement with French.

    • In the case of how the letter j came to be written, I do have a "why."
    • In the many centuries between the 11th and 17th centuries, people wrote down a lot of stuff, nearly all of it by hand.  While many of these people studied the art of calligraphy which had its rules and aspirations, it was still hand-done art, which means it was a very fluid.
    • In the case of the letter i, people thought things were getting too fluid.
    • The shortness of the letter, the tininess of the dot above it, and the tendency of the letter to flow into the letter next to it, especially in cursive, led people to decide to make the i stand out more.  So they began to extend the letter below the baseline, and to give that extension a curve, or a tail.

    This didn't turn out quite like I planned, but I hope it's at least clear enough that you can see my point.  The words on the left, which are Latin or Old French words, use the i, while the words on the right use the j.  Even though the words on the left are fairly legible, the j in the words on the right has the effect of separating the syllables and making the parts of the word distinct.
    (By the way, these are all modern script fonts. From top to bottom, I used Bickham Script Pro, Snell Roundhand, Shelley Allegro, Vladimir Script, and Amazone BT.)

      • For a while, this extended i was used only where the i appeared at the end of a word, where people thought it might get lost.  So people were writing words like filii (the plural of "boys" in Latin) as filij, or Roman numerals like xi as xj.

      On this page, which is taken from a Psalter from Flanders that was made around 1260, you can see on the right side about midway down the page, instead of a dot over the i, they made a kind of tilde.  This, too, was another way to make the i distinct. This sort of alteration may have influenced the shape the capital J would later take.
      (Photo from Gallery in the Vault, which collects and sells illuminated manuscript pages.)

      • Over time, the extended i came to take on a life of its own, to be its own letter.  Not only that, it changed from acting like a vowel to acting like a consonant.  First it acted like a y, but over time, it took on that dʒ sound that we know as j.  This process was essentially driven by the ways in which the pronunciation was changing.  So it's at this point that the pronunciation and the printing were really influencing each other.
      • Then, in the middle of all this, the printing press showed up.  You would think this would standardize things, but it did not.
      • For a long time, the I and the J were regarded as different forms of the same letter.  In fact, in many dictionaries, even in some printed as late as the 19th century, words starting with I and J were intermingled.
      • Dr. Johnson (Mr. Dictionary Extraordinaire), said in a note that he thought the I and the J ought to be treated as different letters. But he still grouped some I and J words together: his closing three entries under I were juxtaposition, ivy, and jymold.
      As the OED points out, the close relationship between the I and the J is still apparent in the fact that some people write their script J's in a way that looks a whole lot like a script I -- like this one does.
      (Actually, this J is art, specifically, landscape architecture by Joanna Massey at North Carolina State.)

      • In parts of Europe where they wrote Blackletter calligraphy -- mainly, Germany -- they felt they were able to keep the letter i distinct enough that they didn't need to extend it below the baseline.  After the printing press showed up, it took a lot longer before Germany started using the tailed i, a.k.a. the j, but eventually they did.  But their words which used the j still retained the y sound.

      Some examples of Blackletter calligraphy
      (Image from Typography 01)

      • Another place where this process happened differently was in Spain.  There, when people started printing books on presses, the j was never used as a vowel, only a consonant.  
      • I can't explain why the Spanish consonant j sound is like an h and not the dʒ sound that was coming from French-based words because my OED doesn't explain that.  I guess I'll have to leave that little tidbit for the Spanish linguists to answer for us.
      • And finally, Jason, the Portuguese j is not pronounced like the English j.  See above. 

      lower case j stamped into copper. the j is here to stay!
      (Photo by Leo Reynolds on Flickr)

      I hope I've addressed this question -- or paraphrased the OED in answer to this question -- to everybody's satisfaction.

      The next thing I want to do is look at a few words that I like, in English, that start with the letter j. I promise, those will be more light-hearted and less brain-heavy than this entry. The hour is way too late for me to start doing that today, so for the moment, I'll give you links to some j words that I've already done.

      Jam and Jelly
      James Earl Jones
      Jigsaw Puzzles
      Johnny Cash Songs
      Journal and Journey
      Jumping into the Chicago River

      Yes, I'm reaching with a couple of those.  But I have surprisingly few entries that start with the letter j.  If there are any j topics you're interested in, post a comment to this entry and let me know. 

      Diane Tillotson, Medieval Writing, The History of j
      R. Harmsen,, The Dutch "letter" IJ
      Steisi, Unilang, Pronunciation Guide for Finnish
      Jukka Korpela, Pronunciation of Finnish in a nutshell (for linguists)
      Dario Oliveira Teixeira, Short Portuguese Lessons
      akenotsuki, How to Pronounce Japanese Words
      Angelfire, The Japanese Slang Jisho
      My trusty copy of the Oxford English Dictionary


      1. I think it's interesting that John, Jan, and Ian are the same name if you realize that J evolved from I.

        I have always been curious, though, why J came about, and why it's so varied between the different languages, even geographically near ones. The English J sound is fairly unique - only Portuguese has it - and the Spanish H sound is entirely unique. The rest of them make more sense, as "IA" can like a Y sound.

      2. As always...your research is staggering and so interesting to read the results!

      3. Thanks for adding that section! Very enlightening.

        And I agree, the Portuguese J is not the same as English, but it's the only one that even comes close. For example, German speakers attempting the English J come across as "ch"; they call me something like "Chason". Zshason sounds a little closer, like the English J with the tongue but without the stop.

      4. Aw, shucks, Pam! I'm glad you like it.

        Glad I answered your question, Chason. :)


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