Relation of 'y' and 'j'
September 19, 2011 12:29 PM   Subscribe

It seems like 'y' sounds are often replaced by 'j' sounds when words make a leap between languages. Is there a phonetic rationale for that or some other reason?

I'm thinking of the following examples:
-Latin 'y' sound (actually spelled 'i') passing into English and becoming 'j' in English words based on Latin originals.

-Hebrew names in the Bible with a 'y' sound that becomes 'j' in the English versions of the names.

-I'm not sure, but I think I've heard French speakers, when pronouncing foreign place names that have a 'y' sound in them, turn the 'y' sound into a 'j'.

-Again, I'm not sure, but I think I've heard people speaking colloquial Arabic pronounce words that have a 'j' sound in Classical Arabic with a 'y' sound instead.
posted by Paquda to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
What you wanna do is read up on Grimm's Law.
posted by MrMoonPie at 12:31 PM on September 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

German "j" is pronounced like English "y". (And German "y" is English "u". Go figure.) Or is that not what you mean-- are you talking about actual transliteration? Can you give examples so we're all on the same page?

Something that might be an influencing factor is that there is no "J" in the Latin (i.e., ancient Roman) alphabet.
posted by supercres at 12:33 PM on September 19, 2011

Best answer: Yep. There are lots of these changes that happen constantly. That particular one is called fortition.
posted by empath at 12:34 PM on September 19, 2011

Response by poster: I meant sounds rather than spelling: the sound 'y' undergoing a change to the sound 'j' (I'm thinking of the sounds represented by those letters in the English alphabet). I wasn't thinking about differrig pronunciations of the letters themselves in different languages, though maybe that's part of the puzzle.
posted by Paquda at 12:39 PM on September 19, 2011

Best answer: The spanish one is region-dependent. Some places change the y sound to a j sound, some don't. For example, I ordered the "Torta Yello" from a local mexican-run place today and they pronounce it with a y sound rather than a j.
posted by zug at 12:49 PM on September 19, 2011

Without using IPA, it's difficult to know which sounds you mean exactly. There's the palatal approximant [j] as in English "yellow," alveopalatal fricative [ʒ] as in English "garage," and, on the slightly exotic end, there's the voiceless palatal fricative [ç]. It appears in some people's speech in words like "hue." It's more copious in German ("mich") and various other languages.

All of these sounds share the approximate region of oral space where they are realized. They're all produced when the tongue comes in contact with the hard palate (or approaches it, in the case of the approximant [j]). So there's a tendency for these sounds to morph into each other as languages evolve, develop, and borrow words from each other. Speakers of one language can perceive one of these sounds as the closest native analog of one of the remaining ones, if they're not available in that language's inventory.

There are also several general tendencies that are noticeable throughout linguistic history.

First of all, two or more vowels without an intervening consonant tend to get intrusive sounds that separate them. That sound is usually an approximant (or "semi-vowel") like [j] or [w]. An alternative is that the vowels will develop into a diphthong. If the diphthong starts with [i] ("long e" in lay terms), it usually develops into [j]. If the first vowel is [o] or [u] or something similar, it tends to develop into [w], which is the closest approximant.

Second, consonants sometimes experience lenition, turning from plosives (sounds where a complete interruption of the air-stream is accomplished) into fricatives (consonants you can drag out, like "sh" or "s") and even approximants (like the aforementioned [j] and [w]) over time. Grimm's law is one example of a lenition process, specifically describing regularities in certain Indo-European languages.

Sorry I can't back these up with examples, I don't have my historical linguistics handbook nearby.
posted by Nomyte at 1:20 PM on September 19, 2011 [4 favorites]

This is a phonetics issue and something studied by linguists. It has to do with the way our mouth and tongue are set up when we make sounds in our native language. Spanish speakers don't natively have a "Y" sound, so it's an ability they have to learn. My linguistics professor gave us a simple way to teach a Spanish-speaker to make a Y sound: they set up to make a "u" sound (you) and then slide it into the next sound. This prevents them from touching the tip of the tongue to the roof of the mouth, which is basically the different between the sound they make and the one they're supposed to make.

Also think how Arabic has gutteral sounds that we can't make and Indian languages have more "th" sounds than the 2 we have in English. If you were to try to make them, you would probably end up making the closest sound we have in English. You wouldn't be able to tell, but they would.

If you're interested in learning more about this, get a basic textbook on linguistics.
posted by DoubleLune at 1:29 PM on September 19, 2011

Nomyte said it much better than I could.

In addition to limitations on sound making (everyone is born able to make the sounds of all languages, but because not all languages use all sounds, we loose that ability. There is really fascinating research on the ability of infants' abilities to hearand differentiate the slightest variations in sounds.) There are also rules in nearly all languages about what sounds "go together."

For instance, my first name has an "initial R" which is very hard for speakers of some languages to do, because their language doesn't allow utilize it.

Also, there are some rules about "sound change" that are useful mostly in looking at how a language changes over time, but might interest you if historical linguistics rocks your world. This may help to explain some of how English ended up with initial [j] while other languages don't have it.
posted by bilabial at 1:33 PM on September 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This happens in some dialects Spanish, including Mexican and Puerto Rican Spanish, the ones I'm kind of familiar with, so yeso "plaster" sounds kind of like "gesso" and paella sounds like "pie-Asia". The J-ish variant doesn't sound exactly like a J, but more like the S in "measure", "treasure" or "visual". In Spanish the Y and J-ish versions of this sound are allophonic variants of each other. This change happens (in dialects that do it) only when the Y (or LL sound) is at the beginning of a word or if it comes between two vowels. It's still Y after a consonant. Spanish doesn't have a J sound (the Spanish letter J is pronounced like English H), so this difference in pronunciation doesn't cause any confusion. To Spanish speakers the J-ish pronunciation of Y just sounds like a slightly heavy pronunciation of the same sound.

(To put it another way the difference between the Y and J sounds is meaningful in English. It isn't in Spanish; it's just a matter of different accents. So Spanish speakers have difficulty hearing the difference between English Y and J sounds. Likewise, English speakers have a hard time hearing the difference between Spanish R and D sounds; Spanish R sounds like the D in "middle" in American pronunciation, and D is like the D in "day", "do", "did" etc. What's the difference? )

Historically, French developed out a regional dialect of Latin. Something similar happened to French pronunciation of Latin J, which originally had a Y sound. English gets it's pronunciation of Latin words mostly via French, so we end up pronouncing them with a J. (I think I've got this approximately right.) The Bible was translated into Latin with approximate phonetic renderings of Hebrew names before all this happened, where Latin J = Hebrew י (yod) because they were actually pronounced about the same at the time.

(Since then English speakers have mucked up the pronunciation of the vowels on our own, including old borrowings from Latin and French, never mind Latin borrowings from Hebrew via ancient Greek which we got via French. See the Great English Vowel Shift. This is actually a good example of the sort of sound change you're asking about here, even though it involves our own language and vowels rather than consonants. It should be obvious that these kinds of changes are almost imperceptible when they're happening, and that gradual sound changes like this can make the same words in different almost completely unrecognizable after a couple hundred years or a few generations.)

- I think I've heard French speakers, when pronouncing foreign place names that have a 'y' sound in them, turn the 'y' sound into a 'j'.

J is pronounced Y in a lot of European languages - almost all eastern and northern European languages that use the Latin alphabet - based on the original Latin pronunciation of J. So French speakers easily could mispronounce unfamiliar foreign names if they don't realize that German. Polish, Czech, Swedish (etc.) J is pronounced Y, just like English speakers could. Whether they actually mispronounce Polish names worse than English-speakers I have no idea.

- think I've heard people speaking colloquial Arabic pronounce words that have a 'j' sound in Classical Arabic with a 'y' sound instead.

Don't know. There are a gazillion dialects of Arabic. One of them might have the J > Y thing you're describing (though none that I know of do that). Egyptians, though, do pronounce the Arabic letter ج G instead of J as it's usually pronounced in Standard Arabic and other Arabic dialects. And it's usually transcribed that way in English spelling of Egyptian names. I think that's what you're thinking of.
posted by nangar at 8:10 PM on September 19, 2011

... make the same words in different languages almost completely unrecognizable ...
posted by nangar at 8:17 PM on September 19, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks everyone and thanks nangar. The French speaker I mentioned was pronouncing a Spanish place name, so I'm not sure if what I was hearing was a feature of French or Spanish. And, yes, it was more like the 'measure' than like a regular 'j' sound. If the Spanish change happened in other languages too and affected the pronunciation of Latin words, that would explain my questions on the pronunciation of Latin-origin words with 'j' and on Biblical names.
posted by Paquda at 7:23 AM on September 20, 2011

If the French speaker you know was pronouncing a Spanish name with a Y sound spelled Y or LL, this would almost have to be because they picked up a Spanish pronunciation (so not actually a mistake). French Y (the letter) is pronounced like the English Y, so if they were just going by the spelling, they wouldn't do that.
posted by nangar at 10:49 AM on September 20, 2011

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