J’s Replacing Y’s in Hebrew

Why is our forefather Yaakov called “Jacob” in English? How did the ‘y’ get transliterated into a ‘j’?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Thank you for your good observation. Many Hebrew ‘y’ names and places became ‘j’ words in English. Some of many examples are Jacob (Yaakov), Joseph (Yosef), Judah (Yehuda), Jeremiah (Yirmiyahu), Jews (Yehudim), Jericho (Yireecho), and Jerusalem (Yerushalayim). This is especially curious since there is no ‘j’ sound in Hebrew.

The reason for this is historical. The Bible was originally translated into Greek. In Greek the ‘y’ basically became an ‘i’ (the Greek iota), but pronounced somewhat like a ‘y’. This later became translated into the Latin ‘i’ – which took on either a vowel sound (‘ee’) or the consonant sound ‘y’. At a point, the letter ‘j’ was introduced into Latin to represent the consonant ‘i’, yet still pronounced ‘y’. Centuries later, its pronunciation shifted to ‘j’ – and that is the sound (and spelling) which reached the English language.

(Note that the German ‘j’ is still pronounced as a ‘y’ so when Hebrew names were transliterated in German Bibles, the ‘j’ was correctly used. It’s possible those same names were borrowed for English translations.)

In a similar vein (but much shorter journey), King Shlomo became “Solomon” because Ancient Greek had no ‘sh’ sound.

Many other perfectly good Hebrew words have equally long stories behind their obfuscation into English, such as the name of the Christian Messiah. No doubt the more popular a name was, the more it came into common use and local pronunciation.

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