Librarian's Lobby
by Daniel D. Stuhlman
May 2004

Why Start Jacob and Joseph With a "J"?

The concept of representing a language with a phonetic alphabet is an important development for civilization. Written language first developed in Egypt about 3200 or 3300 BCE. Written language systems including spelling and orthography tend to be more resistant to change than oral language. Spelling reform [1] has always met with resistance and was usually accomplished after a political upheaval [2]. Written language standardized many oral traditions by recording the thoughts of the writers and enabling communications over large distances. Since oral language is more immediate and fluid it changes faster than the written word.

No alphabet has a one-to-one correspondence between the phonemes of the spoken word and the written words. No standard alphabet takes into account regional pronunciation or accents. For example: some people pronounce these words the same and some are able to differentiate, Don, dawn, done or   Mary, merry, marry.

Because vowels sounds are particularly hard to represent in the alphabet, vowel pairs (diphthongs) or groups of letters are used for the complement of sounds. For example some people pronounce “car” with a broad “ah” and short /r/ sound, while others pronounce the “a” short with a long /r/ sound. English has consonant pairs with one sound such as th, sl, ph. A speaker of English would not think twice about the pronunciation and reader would know how t o read the words because this skill is part of the language learning process. Because English spelling can be ambiguous and pronunciation sometimes depends on context, one question that is never adequately answered is,”Should the transliteration match the written or oral form of the word?”

There is no single right answer. The Encyclopedia Judaica (1972) has done much to standardize transliteration. Essentially they used the system developed by the Academy of Hebrew Language. When cataloging, librarians would use the EJ as a source for the English spelling for a bibliographic record. However, the EJ was not able to totally standardize transliteration for the entire work. When using words that have passed into English the EJ keeps the well-known spelling. That includes most names from the Tanakh. When transliterating music the EJ uses a system that accommodates printing the Hebrew next to the transliteration. When dealing with the nuances of needed to describe language, the transliteration needed to be more exacting than for a general audience.

Some of the difficulties of transliteration include: 1) The sounds of the vowels in the Tanakh may differ from Modern Hebrew sounds; 2) The Hebrew of Eastern Europe and of the Mid-East is different enough to make transliteration an inexact process; 3) Some proper names have been accepted into English; and 4) Some Hebrew words such as amen, hallelujah, and minion have become part of English. The “j’ of hallelujah and the second “I’ of minion are from the consonantal yod, and pronounced /y/.

Why does English use a “J” for names that begin with a consonantal yod? Examples of such names are: יעקב, יוסף, יהושע, ירדן, ירמי הו. יצחק is not included in the list because it begins with a yod, yet English uses an “I” for the first letter.

Let’s examine some English spellings of Hebrew names that are almost an exact transliteration even in modern spoken English. Examples are Adam and Sarah (אדם and   #1513;רה) They are pronounced with just a small shift in the length of the /a/ sound.  Adam changes the accented syllable. Sarah has the same accent as the Hebrew. Abraham is also very close to the Hebrew אברהם, changing the vowel sound, the /b/ -- /v/ of the ב, and accented syllable. There is a very close correspondence between the Hebrew and English consonants. Since even regional dialects of English have vowel and accent shifts, these English forms of the name are quite reasonable and logical.

Even understanding the history of the alphabet does not give logical explanation for how names beginning with yod are transliterated.English uses a modification of the Latin alphabet. This is not the same alphabet as used by Old or Middle English. For example the letter þ (Thorn) which is pronounced like the ‘th’ in “the,” is used in Middle English and modern Icelandic, but not modern English. The diphthong notations such as ‘æ’ and ‘œ,’ which were used by scribes to save space, are not used in today.

The Semitic alphabet was spread by the Phoenicians. It was a leap of faith to use a consonantal phonetic alphabet over pictographs or Cuneiform wedges because the letters require more abstract reasoning than pictographs. The ancient Canaanite script and alphabet was adopted for Hebrew in 12 th or 11th century BCE. By the 5th century BCE Aramaic was used by many nations as a first or second language. By the end of the 4th century BCE, the Aramaic (כתב אשורי) replaced the older script. It was also known as Hebrew square script. The Greek alphabet, based on the Phoenician or North Semitic alphabet, emerged in the 10th century BCE. The Greek letter names and alphabetic order were very close to the Phoenician, which was almost identical to the Hebrew. The Romans borrowed their alphabet from the Etruscans in about the 6th century BCE. Etruscans abandoned the Semitic letter names in favor of phonetic letter names, passed on to us by the Romans: “A, Be, Ce, De, E, Ef,” etc.; but otherwise the early Latin alphabet was structured much like its Etruscan, Greek, and Semitic predecessors. [3]

Even understanding the history of the alphabet does not give logical explanation for how names beginning with yod are transliterated. English uses a modification of the Latin alphabet. This is not the same alphabet as used by Old or Middle English. For example the letter þ (Thorn) which is pronounced like the ‘ th’ in “the,” is used in Middle English and modern Icelandic, but not modern English. The letters J, U, W, and Y were not in the alphabet used in ancient The diphthong notations such as ‘æ’ and ‘œ,’ which were used by scribes to save space, are not used in today.

The phonemes for /th/, /ph/, or, /kh/ did not exist for the Romans. The letters B, D, O, and X were taken from a western Greek alphabet. In Ancient Greek the X (chi) was pronounced /kh/ as in the Hebrew khof (כ).


The alphabet chart has no letter “J.”  Yod  becameI” in Greek and Latin.  In the Roman alphabet the “I” represented both vowel and consonant sounds.  The “J” as a letter in its own right entered the alphabet in the Middle Ages. Latin writers in the Middle Ages sometimes “j” when two “I’s” were together such as “viij.” The final letter was an “i” with a tail. It did not have a separate sound. The “V” in Latin was both a consonant and vowel. English uses “U” for a vowel and “V” for a consonant. In Old English and Middle English the “W” was pronounced closer to the German that is /v/. Spelling in English is not always phonetic because borrowed or assimilated words from other languages usually keep their native spelling, regional pronunciation variations of English,14 vowel sounds of English, silent letters, spelling reform to separate British and American English, and purposeful changes to make English more like Latin. Vowels are difficult to transliterate because their sounds frequently differ in regional dialects. For example: in Hebrew many people can not differentiate between a segol B  or sereh C

Most Hebrew speakers do not differentiate between a gimmel or dalat with and without a dagesh (dot in the middle of the letters בגדכפת).  The dagesh is supposed to indicate a doubling and a shift in the pronunciation. In Ancient Hebrew, all the letters with and without a dagash had different sounds.  Only the Bet/Vet, Kof/Khof, peh/feh, and in Ashkenazi pronunciation tof/sof have separate pronunciations.  Because the meaning is not changed with the pronunciation, this adds a level of complexity to the transliteration problem.

The “I” was used as the notation for both the consonantal and vowel pronunciations in Latin as it was the Yod in the Hebrew alphabet. Users of Latin knew how to pronounce the words with “I’” based on context just as the users of Hebrew learned how to vocalize the consonants. Anglo-Saxon, Old English and Middle English did not use the letter “J” as a full fledged member of the alphabet. If used at all it was a variant of “I” The “J” was adapted by several languages including Spanish, French, English, German and Dutch. The German and Dutch used “J” for the consonantal /y/ sound for example Jahr and Jager. Spanish pronounces it as /h/ like an English “h,” as in Jose or joya. French uses the sound /dzh/ as in the word rouge which is similar but a little smoother than the English sound in judge. Note that in “judge” the “j” and the “dg” have an almost identical sound.

Here are examples using the verse Genesis 50:25 which include the names Jacob, Isaac and Joseph.

Genesis 50:24

תנ"ך עברית

וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶלאֶחָיו, אָנֹכִי מֵת וֵאלֹהִים פָּקֹד יִפְקֹד אֶתְכֶם וְהֶעֱלָה אֶתְכֶם מִןהָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת, אֶלהָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב. 

Vulgate (Latin) Bible

quibus transactis locutus est fratribus suis post mortem meam Deus visitabit vos et ascendere faciet de terra ista ad terram quam iuravit Abraham Isaac et Iacob.

The Vulgate, the Latin Bible translation, completed by Jerome in the year 404 was translated directly from the original languages.  Many translations into European languages were based on the Vulgate. Notice in the verse above “Joseph” does not appear.  “Abraham” and “Isaac” are spelled the same way as modern English.

Wycliffe Bible 1381

Joseph spak to hise brithren, Aftir my deeth God schal visite you, and he schal make to stie fro this lond to the loond which he swoor to Abraham, Ysaac, and Jacob

The English translation prepared by John Wycliff and associates was stylistically uneven, stilted and contained both Latinisms and colloquialisms. The Hebrew translation was attributed to Nicholas of Hereford. “Ysaac” is used for Isaac. “Y” is the vowel sound of yod and would be pronounced like a long /i/. Jacob, Joseph, and Abraham are spelled as in modern English.

William Tyndale Bible c.1539

And Ioseph sayde vnto his brethern: I die And God will suerlie vysett you and bringe you out of this lande vnto the lande which he sware vnto Abraham Isaac and Iacob.

Tyndale published the Pentateuch translation in 1539 in Marburg Germany was the first printed English Bible. For his effort he was branded a heretic and executed in 1536. “I” start both Joseph and Jacob. Look at the spelling, “vysett” for “visit” compared to the “visite” in the Wycliff version.

King James version 1611

And Joseph said unto his brethren, I die: and God will surely visit you, and bring you out of this land unto the land which he sware to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

This verse is almost identical to the Tyndale Bible except for the spelling of some words.

Douay-Rheims Translation 1609-10

After which he told his brethren: God will visit you after my death, and will make you go up out of this land, to the land which he swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

American Standard Version, 1901 ed.

And Joseph said unto his brethren, I die; but God will surely visit you, and bring you up out of this land unto the land which he sware to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

This sentence is almost identical to the Tyndale Bible except for the spelling of some words.

Jewish Publication Society 1985

Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die. God will surely take notice of you and bring you up from this land to the land that He promised on an oath to Abraham, to Isaac and Jacob.”



Contemporary English

Tyndale Bible

































If you spell the name Iacob in English and pronounce the “I” with the consonant sound /y/ the sound will also be almost the same as Hebrew /yakob/. The sound will have a shorter vowel and labial /b/ in place of the softer /v/ but still very close to the Hebrew.  The same could be said for Joseph/Ioseph. All the German and Greek transliterations are pronounced very close to the Hebrew originals.

The actual dates when the sound changed is unknown because we don’t have recordings. Dutch printers in the early 1630’s started to use the “J” on a consistent basis. English speakers copied the spelling, but forgot that the “J” was the descendent of a yod and needed the /y/ sound to be close to the Hebrew names. It seems the phoneme /dzh/ that starts Jacob and Joseph is a mistake or misconception, for it certainly does not follow a linear progression from the sound of the Yod in the original.  It also not follow the English roots of the letters “J” and “I.”


[1] Noah Webster and Melville Dewey were only partly successful with their spelling reform proposals.  Dewey wanted to spell night,nite.”  He even convinced the Chicago Tribune to adopt some of his proposed new spellings, but that did not last.

[2] Examples are : the Norman Conquest of English in 1066 and the American Revolution.

[3] See: Everson,  Michael.  “On The Status Of The Latin Letter Þorn and of Its Sorting Order”

Daniel D. Stuhlman is president of Stuhlman Management Consultants, Chicago, IL, a firm helping organizations turn data and information into knowledge. We are looking for new clients and opportunities. Visit our web site to learn more about knowledge management and what our firm can do for you. Previous issues of Librarian's Lobby can be found at:

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 ©2004 by Daniel D. Stuhlman. All rights reserved.
Last revised May 2, 2004