The Man Responsible For The Letter “J”

Recently we asked you to let us know which of the twenty-six letters of the alphabet you’d like us to investigate. A resounding number of you suggested the consonant /j/. From its humble beginnings as a Roman numeral to its eventual tenth position in the English alphabet, /j/ has had quite a linguistic journey.

“J” is a bit of a late bloomer; after all, it was the last letter added to the alphabet. It is no coincidence that /i/ and /j/ stand side by side – they actually started out as the same character. The letter /j/ began as a swash, a typographical embellishment for the already existing /i/. With the introduction of lowercase letters to the Roman numeric system, /j/ was commonly used to denote the conclusion of a series of one’s – as in “xiij” for the number 13.

(By the way, what’s the name of the dot over the “j” and “i,” and why do we use them? Find out here.)

J’s phonetic quest for independence probably began with the sound of the letter /i/. Originally a Phoenician pictogram representing a leg with a hand, and denoting a sound similar to the /y/ in “yes,” /i/ was later adopted by Semitic groups to describe the word “arm” which, in Semitic languages, began with a /j/ – also possessing the same /y/ sound as in “yes.”

Both /i/ and /j/ were used interchangeably by scribes to express the sound of both the vowel and the consonant. It wasn’t until 1524 when Gian Giorgio Trissino, an Italian Renaissance grammarian known as the father of the letter /j/, made a clear distinction between the two sounds. Trissino’s contribution is important because once he distinguished the soft  /j/ sound, as in “jam” (probably a loan sound), he was able to identify the Greek “Iesus” a translation of the Hebrew “Yeshua,” as the Modern English “Jesus.” Thus the current phoneme for /j/ was born.

The English language is infamous for matching similar phonemes with different letters and /j/ is certainly no exception. In addition to the aforementioned soft /j/ sound, as in “jam,” which is phonetically identical to the soft /g/ as in “general,” the /j/ in Taj Mahal takes on a slight variation of that same sound and is probably the closest to Trissino’s original phonetic interpretation. And coming full circle, the /j/ sound you hear in the word “hallelujah” is pronounced “halleluyah.”

It’s your turn again. Tell us which letter you would most like us to pursue next, and we will go after the story behind the alphabet member that receives the most suggestions in the comments.