The Recent J

The letter J was one of the last to join the English alphabet, together with V and W. In fact, it was completely unknown in any alphabet until the 14th century. Do you want to know how the letter was born? Well, I found out some interesting facts. Here they are…

Unlike most of the letters in our alphabet, J does not come directly from the Ancient Latin alphabet. It came from later Romance tongues. In Latin, the sound “j” did not even exist, and so neither did the letter. The most similar Latin sound was “y”, written with the letter I, which could either be a vowel or a consonant. So we can say that the J split off from the I. Therefore, the first month of the Roman calendar was Ianuarius, the emperor’s name was actually Iulios Caesar. The name “Jesus” was not spelled like this until about 500 years ago.

Evolution of sound

This “y” sound gradually evolved into new sounds in different languages. However, these new sounds differ from one language to another. In Spanish, for example, it took the form of an “h”. In other tongues, like French, Italian and Portuguese the sound was like the English J.

Gian Giorgio Trissino, an Italian Renaissance grammarian was the first to explicitly distinguish between the sounds in 1524. He is consequently known by some as the father of the letter J. But there were two different and unrelated sounds being expressed with the same written shape, so a new shape was needed.

At that time, there was a variant shape for the letter i used mainly in religious or legal documents, drawn as an i with a tail hanging from the base. It was nothing but an ornamental element, which was used at the beginning or end of a word, like in filij (sons). This variant letter shape was later linked to the variant letter sound and used to represent it.

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Spanish beat us all to it!

Spanish was one of the earliest language to use the J in print (around 1600), which helped the promotion of the letter in other languages. Italian, on the other hand, rejected the letter, which is used only for foreign words. The English J occurs in around 1% of words, except when it comes to proper names (Julie, James) and brand names.

Nowadays, there are wide variations in the pronunciation of the letter. There are 4 main different pronunciations: the English one is like dzh /dʒ/, as in jingle. In German: j = y, as in Junge meaning boy. In French: j sounds like the soft g (jour, day). The Spanish “j” (jota) is one of the hardest letters to pronounce for non-native speakers and may be a headache for Spanish learners, since its as its sound, a guttural, heavily aspirated “h”, is absent in English and other languages, like in jueves (Thrusday).