Episode 161: Y U and I Have a Problem

In this episode, we explore the complicated history of the letters Y, U and I, and we examine how they gave birth to the letters W, V and J. We also look at the Gothic script of the Middle Ages which influenced how those letters were used in English spelling.

TRANSCRIPT: EPISODE 161

12 thoughts on “Episode 161: Y U and I Have a Problem

  1. Why do our modern English letters get their present names in so many different ways?
    * Many names are long E preceded by a sound of that consonant: B (bee), C, D, G, P, T, V, Z.
    * Some names are short E followed by a sound of that consonant: F (eff), L, M, N, S, X.
    * J and K’s names are long A preceded by a sound of the consonant.
    * W’s name was explained in the past two approximants episodes, and I suspect the names of R (are), U (you), and Y (why) have similar origins.
    * A, E, I, and O are their long vowel sounds.
    * H (aitch) and Q (cue) are just oddballs.
    Spanish letter names follow a similar pattern(e.g. B=beh, F=effeh, …), so I suspect both Spanish and English letter names come from a common source. But that source can’t be back as far as Greek, where A=alpha, B=beta.

    Finally, why is Z a zee in America and zed in England, and are there other varying names for other individual letters?

    • Indeed, some of those answers are in the History of the Alphabet series. The distinction between ‘zee’ and ‘zed’ is also addressed in an earlier bonus episode.

  2. I was interested (amongst many other things) in the silent “w” sound as in the verb “conquer” (conker). But why is the related noun “conquest” pronounced conkwest not conkest as it should be by the suffix rule? Another thought-provoking episode well up to the standard of the previous 160!

    • I have not researched the specific phonetic history of “conquest,” but I suspect the answer is that there was a lot of variation in the pronunciation of those words in early Modern English. You would have probably heard “conquer” and “conquest” pronounced both ways at the time. Eventually, people settled on “conquer” without the /w/ and “conquest” with the /w/. For example, I noted that “awkward” was often pronounced without the ‘w’ sound as ‘aukered’ at one time, but the version with the ‘w’ sound eventually won out. I suspect the same thing happened with “conquest.”

  3. Thanks for another informative and interesting episode. About the pronunciation of “two”, I had been under the impression, though I forget from where, that the disjunct between the spelling and the pronunciation was the result of the former deriving from the Old English masculine form “twa” and the latter from the Old English neuter form “tu”. You gave an example of something similar a while back in the case of “bury”. Are you able to shed light on how there are two theories for “two”, and how firm the evidence for either is?

    • I am not aware of any sources that link the modern pronunciation of “two” to the old neuter form. All of my sources indicate that the modern pronunciation evolved out of “twa,” and the ‘w’ sound was lost through the process I described in the episode. I think the modern spelling with the letter W is further evidence of that later development. For what it’s worth, here is the OED’s comment on the issue:

      “The pronunciation /tuː/, like that of ‘who’ /huː/ from Old English hwá, is due to labialization of the vowel by the w (compare womb), which then disappeared before the related sound. The successive stages would thus be /twaː//twɔː//twoː//twuː//tuː/.”.

  4. Kevin, if you were keeping up with internet trends you would have entitled this episode: “Gothic: The typeface that broke English”. Thanks as always for NOT keeping up with Internet trends. 🙂

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