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The alphabet "j" is pronounced differently in the following major European languages:

  • Spanish: justo /ˈxusto/
  • English:  just  /d͡ʒʌst/
  • German: junge /ˈjʊŋə/
  • French:  juste  /ʒyst/

How is the sound so varied in these languages?

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The reason why the pronunciation is so different is because a phenomenon called phoneme change.

The term is used to design the process from which a language changes their phonetic system over time. It is a universal and inevitable process whereby the languages chance over time and whereby the stages of the language of different periods can develop intelligibility among them.


Types of changes:


Assimilation: Process where a sound acquires phonetic features which make them more similar to an adjacent phoneme or a close phoneme, the phoneme is "assimilated"

Metathesis: It is the change of place of one or more sounds in the interior of a word. It responds to the need of making the pronunciation easier, like crocodilo ->cocodrilo.

Therefore, the languages you mentioned and asked about have changed over time because of the reasons above.

Note: Language has evolved vastly over time, Spanish of 200 years isn't the same as current Spanish. So if a language in a single country can change so much, imagine how could languages that have the same roots can also vastly evolve; specially when there is a far location among them.

(Bibliography: https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cambio_fon%C3%A9tico , https://prezi.com/2dwuqb5kxl58/cambios-foneticos-morfologicos-y-semanticos/)

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I would reverse the question. How is it that such varied sounds came to be represented by the same letter? It is the oral language that is the natural language. The written language is added later.

In Spanish, the sound that is represented by the jota used to be represented by the equis. Examples: Mexico, Texas. The change was part of a general revision of spelling.

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  • A good point. I will go ahead and put your version of the question on Linguistics section.
    – Amit Dash
    Aug 5 '14 at 5:05
  • Thanks. It's also worth noting that the sound of the words "Mexico" and "Texas" in American English appear to be derived from the way an American would pronounce an equis, and not by listening to a Mexican saying those words. Aug 5 '14 at 10:27
  • I disagree, to a point. While it is true that oral language comes first, it also evolves after the written form is established. The letter j in these languages, or in some of them at least, did not sound the way it sounds today when it was first written. But I don't know enough of this to write a full answer.
    – Gorpik
    Jul 1 '16 at 6:46
  • I also don't know enough about the other languages that use j for various sounds. But in the case of Spanish, the spelling was changed to provide a new use for the letter j. Example: Mexico became Mejico, although it is still spelled with an x in Mexico. Jul 1 '16 at 9:55

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