1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Y


Y the twenty-fifth letter of the English alphabet, one of four variants (u, v, w, y) which have been developed out of one Greek symbol. It was taken into the Roman alphabet as a form distinct from V in the 1st century B.C., when it was desired to represent the sound of the Greek u more accurately than could be done by the ordinary Roman alphabet. Many Greek words had been borrowed from Greek long before this and pronounced like genuine Latin words. Thus the proper name Πύρρος was borrowed as Burrus, Φρύγες as Bruges. But with the growth of literary knowledge this was felt to be a very inexact representation of the Greek sounds, and the words were respelt as Pyrrhus and Phryges. The philosopher Pythagoras is said to have regarded this letter as a symbol of human life (Servius, on Virgil, Aeneid vi. 136). To this there are various references in the Roman poets. Two lines of Persius (iii. 56–57) seem to throw some light upon the particular form of Y intended

“Et tibi quae Samios dlduxit littera ramos
surgentem dextro monstravit limite callem.”

These lines appear to imply that the letter took the form y, which can only be one of the oldest forms (EtruscanV-01.svg) written from right to left. The straight road is the difficult, the deviating line is the easier path of vice. Anglo-Saxon took over the Roman Y with its Roman value of the “modified u” (ü), and employed it accordingly for the sound which arose from a u sound under the influence of an i in the following syllable: fyllan, “fill,” cp. Gothic fulljan, mus, “mouse,” plural mūs, from an earlier lost mūsis. The y sounds were often confused with i, whence, in modern English, mice.

The vowel use was the only use of the old symbol. The consonant Y is of a different origin. The early English g (always hard as in gig) was palatalized before e and i sounds into a consonant i () or y, which was written in Middle English with the symbol ȝ. With this letter also was written the original consonant i (), which appears in Latin as i (j) in iugum, iuvencus. This Latin sound seems, at least initially, to have represented two originally separate sounds, for Greek represents the first sound of iugum by ζ (ζυγόν) while in other words it represents a (y) of other languages by the “rough breathing” (h or ‛): ἁγνός, “holy,” is the same word as the Sanskrit yajnas. The English words that correspond etymologically to iugum and iuvencus are “yoke” and “young.” In Northern English the symbol ȝ survived longer than in the southern part of the island, and in Scottish documents of the 16th century was confused with z. From this cause various Scottish names that were never pronounced with z are so spelt, as Menzies (Mengies), Dalziel, Cadzow. In others like Mackenzie, z is now universally pronounced, though as late as the middle of the 18th century Lord Karnes declared that to hear Mackenzie pronounced with a z turned his stomach.  (P. Gi.)