23 July 2009

Italian Lesson Update #2

Well, when I first looked over the Italian alphabet, I immediately noticed there is no j! When I came back to it and tried to recite the alphabet, I noticed there is also no w, x or y!

What is going on here?!
I mean, I know Italian is the closest modern descendant of Latin we have, and Latin didn't really have j, but other Romance Languages like Portuguese, Spanish, French, Romanian and Catalan all have j.
As a matter of fact, those languages all also have w, x and y!

The story of j.

J started off as a swash variation of i. That's it. 1524 is the oldest recorded use of two distinct sounds for i and j. As a matter of fact, Gian Giorgio Trissino was the first to do it, and he was an Italian dude. He was writing about linguistic development in Italian, even, but I guess it just never caught on in Italian. You only see j in Italian when it's in a proper Latin noun--therefore, a lot of Italian city names have j in them, like Boljano, Jelsi and Pietraroja.

It did, however, catch on in other Romance Languages, and developed a different sound in each. In French, Portuguese and Romanian it makes a /ʒ/ sound. Catalan is pretty close to Spanish and it makes a /ʑ/ sound (like the h in help). Spanish is the only one of those that de-voiced it, and turned it into a /x ~ h/ sound, which is a lot like that Catalan pronunciation.

In a lot of non-European languages like Turkish, Azerbaijani and Tatar, the j makes the /ʒ/ sound, too. Like Taj Mahal.

The sound we get for our English j comes from the French j, which turned into a /dʒ/ sound for us. We first saw it happen in writing in English, in 1634. BUT we still see it do some funny sounds, like in the word Hallelujah and Taj Mahal.

Germanic languages embraced it fully, though. German, Dutch, Swedish, Danish and Norwegian all use it to make a /j/ sound (which is like the English word yet.)
And as a note, j is not used in Celtic or Native American languages at all.

What about w, x and y?

Well, in English we used to see just vv instead of w, and eventually, they got crossed together in the middle. We're talking about the 7th century, here. And as far as Romance Languages are concerned, w is still really only used for foreign words, like le week-end and le kiwi in French.

X has been around forever, because it comes from the Ancient Greek: Chi X in Western Greek and Xi Ξ in Eastern Greek. It might even be older than that according to some hyroglyphs and stuff, but whatever. This is where the /ks/ sound came from. In French, it came into usage as a plural form
that used to be -us, but then people started writing it pretty and it turned into x. In French, it's generally silent. In Catalan, it can be pronounced either /ʃ/ or /ks/ or /s/. This plus /z/ is true for Portuguese. In Spanish, it makes a hard /x/ sound and in spelling is often interchanged with j because j makes a very similar sound. Like Mexico can also be spelled Mejico.

Y is pretty straightforward, too. It also came from the Greek: Upsilon Y. (Hence Latin not really having it.) As a matter of fact, Old English called y "Greek U" and in Spanish, Catalan, French and Romanian, it is still called "Greek I" (referring to y) and i is called "Latin I" (referring to i). In almost every case it's /i/ or /j/ but in German it's always /ʏ/. Spanish does something similar and usually pronounces it /ʝ/. Italian only uses it in loanwords.

And that's that.

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