Monday, October 9, 2017

Word of the Week - J

Okay, so it's more a letter of the week. ;-)

My curiosity over the letter J began in part when I saw a Facebook rant, claiming that we're all in big trouble spiritually because we've forgotten the true name of the Son of the God--that it was Yeshua, not Jesus.

The Greek scholar in me immediately took note...especially because there's no "sh" sound in Greek, so I kinda laughed. The way Jesus is spelled in Greek is more like "Iesus." (Pronounced "Yay-soos.") Depending on the part of speech. Like all other words, names change in Greek depending on how you're using them. But regardless, no "sh" sound. Now, I assume it would be present in the Hebrew...and given that the stories of His life were written in Greek, I'm also assuming He heard His name pronounced both in the Hebrew and Greek fashion--and so far as I know, He didn't raise a fuss about it.

But I digress. How, I began to wonder, did we move from pronouncing it with a Y to pronouncing it with a J?

Well, that's pretty fun. See, in both Greek and Latin, it's actually spelled with an I (or the Greek equivalent). But I contained, in both languages, a y sound at the beginning of words many times, because it's a natural slur of the tongue--say "ee-ay-soo" out loud. It sounds like "yay-soo," right? So there we go.

J was actually the last letter added to the Latin alphabet (which English, or course, uses), and it was at first just a swash version of I, used when I came at the end of a sequence, especially a number. For instance, 13 would be "xiij" to let you know that was the end of the number. It had no sound of its own, it was interchangeable with the I.

It wasn't until the Renaissance that a scribe named Gian Giorgio Trissino began differentiating the two and assigned J a sound of its own--the soft "j" sound like in "jam." From there, it also took on other sounds, like in "Taj Mahal"--and still retained that "y" sound in words like "hallelujah."

It's worth noting, however, that in many languages, "J" still keeps that "Y" sound as its primary one--consider German, for instance. And then in Spanish, we get an "H" sound for it.

My conclusion? Jesus didn't show any great issue with how His name was pronounced at the time, insisting on either a Hebrew or Greek pronunciation, so I really doubt He gets upset that Trissino developed a new sound for the letter J which subsequently changed how His name was said by certain people groups using the Latin alphabet. All the same, it's quite interesting to realize where the J came from, how its sound has changed over the centuries, and how that took us from "Iesu" to "Jesus."


  1. Interesting post! I don't think it matters to Jesus how His name is pronounced. After all, there are many languages out there that pronounce letters differently.

  2. Interesting post, Roseanna. It reminds me of the quandary I'm facing in recording Roman novels. In English, c and g are hard if followed by a, o, or u. They are soft (like s or j) if followed by i, e or y. In the classical Latin of the Roman Empire, c and g are always hard, as in coat and goat, regardless of the vowel that follows.

    So how should a narrator pronounce Roman names ending in -ius? I have lead characters named Dacius, Decimus and Lucius. People won't care about an unusual name like Dacius and Decimus, but Lucius is sometimes given to American kids, and the c is pronounced soft, not hard.

    Would you go with the Roman pronunciation to satisfy history purists or with the American pronunciation to satisfy the American ear?