The Portland Phoenix

The Universal Notebook: Let’s jettison the J

George, Geoffrey, German, giraffe, ginger, gentle, genius – need I go on? The English language is full of words that begin with a so-called “soft G.” That being so, why do we need J at all?

Unless your name is Jack, Jim, Jennifer, or Jill, you probably could care less whether I am successful in consigning the letter J to the junkyard of history, but Gennifer and Gillian would likely appreciate streamlining the alphabet a bit.

My J animus began with Maine State Lottery crossword scratch cards. It has been my experience that you cannot win with a card that has a J on it. Every time I scratch off a letter to reveal a jerkwater J, I complain to my lovely wife Carolyn that we would all be better off without the J.

Why in the world do we need 26 letters if several (like J and X) can easily be replaced with existing letters? 

Of course, we could also easily replace most C words with a K or an S. But then what to do about CH words like champ, chump, or chicken? That’s why I’d begin my alphabetical housecleaning by jettisoning the J.

There is, after all, nothing sacred about 26 letters. The Rokotan language of Papua New Guinea, from what I read on the internet, has but 12 letters, and the 4,000 residents of the island of Bougainville who speak Rokotan jabber along quite nicely.

Alphabets are all over the board when it comes to variety. The Russian Cyrillic alphabet has 33 letters, while the Khmer alphabet of Cambodia has 74. Chinese boasts more than 50,000 pictograms, but they are closer to words than letters and, anyway, most Chinese people only use about 8,000 of them. The average English speaker, by way of comparison, knows between 20,000 and 40,000 words.

The Random House Dictionary of the English Language that stands beside my desk is 50 years old and says it contains 260,000 words. Approximately 1,400 of those words begin with the letter J. That’s far more than X (400), Y (985), or Z (nearly 700), but far fewer than the popular letters like M (more than 6,100) or R (about 14,500). 

In my jaundiced view, the vast majority of the J words are expendable. I mean who needs “jequirity,” a kind of Indian licorice?  And how often do you have to conjure up “jinn,” a spirit that influences humans for good and evil? Use it in a sentence? Putin seems to have gotten into the jinn, or rather the jinn seems to have gotten into him. 

I’m as big a fan of bodkins, codpieces, and jerkins as the next man, but in this day and age of puffers and jeggings, who really needs “justaucorps,” a close-fitting, knee-length jacket that replaced the doublet in the 17th century?

While other more worldly languages sport judicious umlauts and jocular accents, cedillas, and tildes, the only diacritical marks in English are the jaded dots above the lower case i and j. Called a tittle, the j dot is a jaunty jot for an extraneous letter.

The Latin root of the English language had but 23 letters, 21 of them borrowed from the Etruscan alphabet. I, J, V, U, and W were all added during medieval times. In fact, the birth of the letter J has been pinpointed as 1524, the year Italian Renaissance soft G grammarian Gian Giorgio Trissino, the Father of the Letter J, established the soft J sound.

Up until 1524, Jesus Christ was known by the Hebrew Yeshua or Greek Iesus. Trissino’s soft J phoneme christened the savior of the modern world.

Oh, joy and jubilation! Jeepers creepers! Jiminy crow!

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.

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