#12 : A Letter Called Yogh.


I have been very focused on writing systems and am now going in the direction of extinct members of the alphabet.  I looked at ð (eth) and þ (thorn) last time and was quite insistent they should remain within usage.  I am not quite the same with all of the extinct letters, I am just enþusiastic about it and þink ðat ðey look quite cool.  Today, I’ll be primarily talking about yogh, and next week, I shall explain the origins of its ancestors. 

<Ȝ, ȝ>

And here we have good old ‘yogh’ in both uppercase and lowercase forms.  The grapheme bares very close resemblance to that of the Arabic numeral <3> which people tend to use in documents if there isn’t an enlarged set of symbols allowing for yogh.  It does rather resemble an italicised <3> and also another IPA symbol, ezh, or eȝ, or <Ȝ>; which again bears close resemblance to Arabic numeral <3>.  Yogh can be written to include itself within its own name as ‘Ȝoch’, ‘Ȝogh’, ‘Yoȝ’, or even ‘Ȝoȝ’ – it’s the Old and Middle English approaches of DIY spelling again!

And now for its origins…  Actually… No.  Let’s start at its endings and work backwards as it will be narratively more exciting!

Yogh – which is the spelling I am going to stick to as there are too many variants, was present in both Middle English and [Middle] Scots and came to an end in both of them at a similar time.  Yogh had managed to cling on after eð met its end in Early Middle English, and the rise of the printing press basically spelt bad news for Yogh.  Unlike eð and þorn, the usage of yogh was far more confusing as it could represent a <y> at the beginning of syllables, <ch> and <gh> digraphs at the end, slightly turbulent vowels in the middle of syllables, and it could also be combined somewhat ‘digraphic-ally’ as <yȝ>, <ȝg>, and <ȝh> which would all have different phonetic sounds depending upon the region it was spoken and written in.  Here’s a few examples of where yogh would have been used in:

  • niȝt as in ‘night’;
  • yȝe as in ‘eye’;
  • siȝ as in ‘sigh’;
  • ȝif as in the Middle English pronunciation and spelling of ‘if’;
  • ȝes as in the Middle English affirmative ‘yes’;
  • ȝister- as in the prefix ‘yester-’;
  • ȝit as in ‘yet’;
  • ȝive as in ‘give’;
  • ȝhere as in the Middle English pronunciation and spelling of ‘ear’.

So the plentiful array of environments (an abstract, mental ‘place’ where a sound or phone appears in between) are plentiful, not to mention that the surface forms (the physical form in which a sound or phone is realised) as well.  Yogh was commonly any of the following sounds:

  • [j] the <y> in ‘yes’;
  • [jh] an aspirated, or breathier variant, of the [j];
  • [x] a voiceless velar fricative as in the <ch> in the Scottish word ‘loch’;
  • [ɣ] the voiced counterpart of [x];
  • [g] the <g> in ‘get’;
  • [çj] the <h> in Standard English pronunciation of ‘huge’;
  • [hj] a <h> sound in ‘hat’ followed immediately by a [j] phone;
  • […] there are many more variants, but these are the main ones.

So, poor Yogh troubled writers in where to and where not to write the glyph and what it would even be pronounced like.  In Scotland, there was confusion over the symbol looking like a <z> and it slowly dissolved into being written as a cursive-z due to both preference and lack of a Yogh character in the font typeset for scribes.  When the printing press came along, Scottish scribes immediately abandoned Yogh in favour of <z>.

For English and Norman scribes, there was a large preference for digraphs, as previously explained, and special treatment given to Latin letters – yogh, being a Germanic letter, got discriminated against for being ‘inferior’.  Slowly, <gh> and <ch> digraphs were introduced and replaced the yogh in words typically with <-augh-> and <-ough-> tetragraphs (again, we have had enough of ‘ough’, but this does relate to the eighth digraph from my list of digraphs).  Due to how long this process took, some of the pronunciations were fossilised, some began to change, and others remained the same whereas before, they were generally a little more predictable than the ‘ough’ we have today.  It was the slow death of yogh that caused this effect and when the printing press came along, for maximum efficiency, yogh, like þorn, was axed.

This letter does indeed remain very, very, very loosely in use in some Gaelic surnames of Irish and Scottish heritage and is seen, for some odd reason, only word-initially in these rare, antique surnames; and word-initially is to say the very first letter of their surname.

Let’s remind ourselves briefly of the little sentence from last week which read:

“Marks of the seething phoenix – an unthinkable demon; its genre of language and thought is a farfetched archaeology that thrusts us far away from what is considered to be bland.”

…and how would it look with yogh in it…

“Maȝks of the seething phoenix – an unthinkable demon; its genre of lanȝuage and thouȝt is a farfeyȝed arȝaeology that thrusts us far awaȝy from what is considered to be bland.”

This is, of course, including yogh in places where it can well be seen in medieval manuscripts and may not strictly be true of all time periods and/or regions, but again, it does look kinda cool, even if a little less so than <ð> and <þ>.Next, I shall be delving into some of the extinct letters of the alphabet that are responsible for the existence of <ȝ> in the first place…

– DP, Linguistics student

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