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.


19 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. 🙂

  5. Really good episode, thank you.
    You said the letter J was first recognised as a letter in its own right just after the reign of Elizabeth. The monarch after Elizabeth was James, with a J!
    Maybe his name was the reason for the letter to be seen as important.

  6. More precisely, we don’t “drop” the and “add” the suffix (for example), but change the back to an and then add the suffix (for example). This is important because English morphemes never cross morphemic boundaries and never change their spelling, except in three very specific circumstances, all involving suffixes, the “ rewritten as ” rule being one of them. Put another way, there is no English suffix .

  7. You talked about the fact that the WH sound has disappeared in modern English, and you’ve mentioned that in the past as well. Certainly many people don’t distinguish the sounds, and there was even an episode of Family Guy where they make fun of those who do. As somebody who does pronounce weather and whether differently, I’ve gotten a bit of flak since it aired.

    It’s clear from your speech that you do not distinguish the sounds (pronouncing the word WHY and the name of the letter Y exactly the same), and in this episode when you tried to describe the WH sound (as an H sound before the W) it sounded very awkward. I’m not a linguist and can only speak for my own dialect (San Francisco bay area for many generations – not that everyone here pronounces WH), but for me the WH sound is the unvoiced version of the W sound. Shape your lips for W, and just blow a little without engaging the voice box.

  8. This episode reminds me of the unanswerable question: Is the indefinite article that precedes “unionized” “a” or “an”? Depends on whether you are a chemist or a worker,

    • That is actually a topic for an upcoming episode. The ‘u’ sound in English is often pronounced with a slight ‘y’ sound at the beginning. We pronounce the letter U as ‘yoo’ not ‘oo.’ That little ‘y’ sound at the front creates the confusion over the proper article to use before words that begin with U, but that initial ‘y’ sound isn’t clearly attested in English until the 1600s. So I’m saving that discussion for a future episode.

  9. So have I understood it correctly that the reason that English uses y instead of j to represent what you call the “y-sound” is because of influence from French and Latin? That would make sense, considering that in all the other Germanic languages (German/Dutch/Scandinavian), j is of course the consonant form of i and is pronounced like the English “y-sound”, while the letter y is only used as a vowel (except for in a few loanwords).

  10. One interesting parallel. The most common version of shorthand (at least in the U.S.), is Gregg shorthand, which is phonetic-based, and Gregg uses the symbols for “i” and “u” to also (respectively) represent the “y” and “w” consonant sounds.

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