I understand that the letter "J" is relatively new — perhaps 400–500 years old. But since there has long been important names that begin with J, such as Jesus, Joshua, Justinian, etc., and which predate the introduction of a special letter, does that mean that the "J" sound predated the letter, or were such famous names spelled and pronounced differently?

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    Related: this nice overview of the history of Biblical names.
    – RegDwigнt
    Jan 28, 2014 at 14:30
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    Would not this question be better asked on linguistics? Not particular to English, is it?
    – None
    Jan 28, 2014 at 14:41
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    The "J" glyph is a lot older than that, but it was simply a variant of the "I" glyph, same as we have two different lowercase a's. As with 'V', which could denote either the consonant 'V' or the vowel 'U', an 'I' could denote either the vowel 'I' or the consonant 'J'. The pronunciation of both the vowel and the consonant varied by language, time, and place.
    – Marthaª
    Jan 28, 2014 at 14:44
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    @Bruce, your question is related to the Latin alphabet. It is the exact same in Dutch and Norwegian, as well as a host of other languages written in the Latin alphabet during the Middle Ages and later. Jan 28, 2014 at 15:26
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    @BruceJames, no, it's not the English alphabet, but the Latin one, which is what English, and Dutch, and Norwegian, and probably 90% of European languages (except Greek and some of the Slavic languages) happen to use. The languages that use this alphabet all make adjustments peculiar to the language at hand, but they all have in common that before semi-modern times, I and J were considered variant forms of the same letter, same as U and V. Context generally determined what value the letter had.
    – JPmiaou
    Jan 28, 2014 at 15:26

5 Answers 5


The answer to this is.... complicated.

The letter J is, as you mentioned, relatively recent, and originated as a variant of the letter I. Why that happens is a little complicated, and requires unpacking some assumptions in your question.

In the original languages (Latin, Greek, Hebrew) which provide us with the names Jesus, Joseph, Justinian, etc., the sound which we write as J was pronounced as the English letter Y. (Just to make things confusing for English speakers, the phonetic symbol for this sound is [j].) In Latin, the letter for this was I/i, in Greek it was Ι/ι (iota), and in Hebrew it was י (yod). Thus, the Greek spelling for "Jesus" was Ιησους, pronounced something like "Yeh-SOOS", and the Latin likewise was Iesus.

Subsequently, in the Latin alphabet the letter J was developed as a variant of I, and this distinction was later used to distinguish the consonantal "y" sound [j] from the vocalic "i" sound [i]. However, at about the same time there was a sound change in many of the languages of Western Europe, such that the "y" sound changed into a "j" sound ([dʒ], or sometimes [ʒ]). So we have it that in English, the letter J now represents a consonant [dʒ] which is not obviously similar to the vowel [i], despite the fact that they descend from the same letter and the same sound. (English also has many [dʒ] sounds spelled with J which come from native Germanic roots.)

You can see this history worked out differently in the spelling systems of German and many of the Slavic languages of Eastern Europe, where the letter J spells the "y" sound [j], and the letter Y, if used at all, is primarily used as a vowel.

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    This is a good explanation. I wondered if going into such detail on an English-usage forum was apt even as I was typing out my answer, but I see that I am not the only one :-)
    – Å Stuart
    Jan 28, 2014 at 15:29
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    Wait, so Indiana Jones and the Final Crusade was being anachronistic by having a J tile? youtube.com/watch?v=XMSK-wq3jlg
    – Nick T
    Jan 29, 2014 at 0:28
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    Subsequently, in the Latin alphabet the letter J was developed as a variant of I. Partly this distinguished the consonantal "y" sound [j] from the vocalic "i" sound [i]. — Not sure I agree with this. When the variant of the letter i appeared that was written like j (both without dots), there was no connection with a distinction of sound. This happened much later and independently. Jan 29, 2014 at 0:41
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    Just French, really. The francophone influence in England pushed that I believe, when English switched from runes to the Latin alphabet.
    – Ledda
    Jan 29, 2014 at 4:52
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    One more thing: in classical Greek, ιη- would be two syllables, i.e. a glottal stop and two separate vowels. (You could say there is a connective /j/ sound audible between the vowels.) When a words starts with a(n) iota in Greek, it was not pronounced /j-/, not even before another vowel. Cf. English iota. It is possible that this changed in later Greek (under Latin influence?), but I am not aware of this. In some cases, post-classical Greek may have used ι- to render the Hebrew yod or the Latin i (/j/); so in such borrowed words ι- was probably pronounced /j/. But not in normal words. Jan 29, 2014 at 19:25

As @Laure mentions, this really belongs to the Linguistics group as this is a wider question pertinent to Latin and all/most Latin-influenced European languages.

Classical Latin did not have a distinct J sound (the J as we know in English.) When I was followed by another vowel, it usually sounded similar to English /Y/. Thus we had Iulius which was as if you said /Yulius/ or /Yulyus/.

In the Middle Ages, a new letter was assigned to this sound - J. However, it can be seen from even a casual glance that there has been widespread confusion of this and related sounds in many Western European languages.

In Spanish, for example, the /y/ sound moved to the letter /LL/, whilst the letter J picked up the guttural /ch/ which is due to possible Arabic influence.

In English meanwhile, an original prevocalic (i, e) /g/ sound palatalized to /j/ and eventually to /y/. We can see these when we compare Dutch or German cognates.

Yesterday - Gestern

This outline only partially touches upon the question asked, but I hope throws some light on the evolution of the sounds around the letter J in a broader context.

  • Just to back-up the spanish matter. Casillas (e.g. the goalkeeper) is pronounced like kind of like Casiiyas. There is also the famous island of Mallorca. It's kind of funny because some of the no so well known words are often pronounced (by the non-spanish speakers ofc) with the classic l like in "letter", e.g. in my country the dish - paella.
    – luk32
    Jan 29, 2014 at 13:43
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    I think you've mixed up your IPA: /j/ is the consonant as in yes; /y/ is the vowel as in German über or French tu (or Ancient Greek MY). Feb 5, 2014 at 19:44
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    The [j] sound (what you write as /y/) did not shift to the letter ll in Spanish—that is [λ], which has been simplified in some dialects to [ʝ] or even [j]. The [j] sound is in Spanish, as in English, represented by the letter y, though it has in some dialects now become [ʝ] or [ɟ]. Jul 25, 2015 at 17:03

The quick answer is "yes" to both questions. Before j became differentiated from i, the "J" sound could be spelled with g in various combinations (edge, gem, exaggerate, etc.); and in ancient times, the names you mentioned were pronounced with an initial "Y" sound. Transcribed from Hebrew, Jesus was Yeshua. The Romans would have spelled Justinian "Iustinianus."

  • I have a problem with the modern assumption that Jesus translates to Yeshua in Hebrew. The figure of Jesus is introduced to the world in Greek, not Hebrew, so the Hebrew translation might not necessarily be what folks now want to asume. We don't really know what his name was in Hebrew. Jan 28, 2014 at 15:10
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    @BruceJames To begin with, Jesus' name in his native language was probably Aramaic, not Hebrew (which by Jesus' time was solely a liturgical language, not a spoken language). That said, I don't think there's any real controversy over the fact that Jesus' name was the Aramaic version of ישוע Yeshua. Jan 28, 2014 at 15:27
  • @JSBձոգչ -- I disagree. There are opinions that call him Yeshu, e.g. Klausner "Yeshu Ha-Notzri" (1922). Reuben Alcolay explains that Yeshua is really Joshua, where as Yeshu, in Hebrew and Aramaic, was a name traditionally applied to Jesus. Richard Bauckham's 2008 review of ancient Israeli ostuaries commented that the name Yeshua was a rare spelling of the name in the days of Jesus and that Yeshu was more common. Yeshua is not applied in Hebrew or Aramaic works to Jesus until Maimonedes in the 12th century. There is no agreement here because there is no Hebrew or Aramaic source from Jesus' day. Jan 28, 2014 at 20:10
  • @Bruce is Yeshu something other than a late variant of Yeshua? Jan 28, 2014 at 20:28
  • @JSBձոգչ - its complicated. See the Wikipedia article on Yeshu. There are numerous opinions described there. Jan 28, 2014 at 20:51

Just for fun - in Italian there is no "J" letter. The sound of that letter in English is represented by "ge" or "gi" as in Giovanni ("jo von nee" in crude English phonetics). You also see this in "gelato" and it shows up in the English "gelatin" and its shorter form "gel". See also "gemini", "gesture", "gentle", "gee whiz", "german", and lots more.

Who needs a "j"? The 'g' in "go" and "gu" are pronounced as in English ("hard" g). For a hard g sound followed by either "e" or "i", the Italians insert an 'h' between the 'g' and the following vowel. We use these spellings in english words like 'ghost" and 'aghast' (although the 'h' would not be used in Italian since the following vowel already makes the "g" hard.

Along those same lines - in Italian the English sound of "ch" is represented (along with its following vowel as "ci" or "ce". Similarly to 'g', inserting an 'h' between a 'c' and either 'e' or 'i' makes the 'c' "hard" - as does a following vowel of 'o' or 'u'. And again we use some of this same stuff in English - 'echo', 'charisma', 'chimera', etc. I think most of those words in English come from Greek - just to confuse things - but the idea that a 'ch' is pronounced as 'ck' (or just "hard c") is difficult for English speakers to accept until they see the same rule applied in English.

Not really and English Language question... but interesting (to me) anyway.

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    I have an Italian friend who jokes that the "J" in Italian is only used for spelling Jeep.
    – Gabe
    Jan 29, 2014 at 6:45
  • It's very rare, but the letter -J does exist in the Italian alphabet. Don't forget there's a football club in Turin called Juventus, contracted to Juve, meaning "youth". The Italian J has a different pronunciation from ge similar to yu or iu "yu.ven.tus". List of J words
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 29, 2014 at 8:20
  • @Mari-LouA it only exists in foreign or foreign-derived words and names (including the latin Juventus/Iuventus - gioventù). It can also be found in some older italian texts but at the time was still considered it a variation of i. In any case this is mostly academic and off topic for this question :)
    – msam
    Jan 29, 2014 at 9:11
  • Yes, you're absolutely right. All those words are foreign loaned, it's pretty clear from the link. I just wanted to point out that -J has entered in the Italian alphabet, whether it's taught at primary state schools is a separate matter. (I think not alongside with -K, but I'm not certain.)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 29, 2014 at 9:17
  • There is no J in the Welsh alphabet either, despite the prevalence of Jones as a surname.
    – Mynamite
    Aug 31, 2014 at 17:26

I think that this letter has to do with the limitation of the alphabet that was used as the template. For example, the Armenian alphabet created in 405-406 AD, has 36 characters/letters originally and an additional 2 characters/letters were added in the middle ages. The original alphabet contained a character for the both the hard and soft "j" sounds. Also the Georgian alphabet (33 letters created in the 4th century AD) has a character for the hard "j" sound as in January and a character for the softer "j" sound as in a 'zh" as would be found in "Zha Zha Gabor". Since Georgian is not an Indo-European language while Armenian is an Indo-European language, one can come to the conclusion that the creation of the letter is dependent upon the needs of the language and not the language group.

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