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Why Couldn’t Shakespeare Get U and V Right?

When you look at old books into the 1600’s, it looks like they mixed u and v up with abandon- they did.

If you work your genealogy back to that era, or are looking at old Shakespeare printings or Bibles etc., or even inscriptions on buildings to this day, you’ll be seeing that.

Originally, there had only been one letter, which could be spelled

angularly: V, good for chiseling inscriptions into stone, and

round: U, easier when you’re using ink.

The Romans pronounced the sound as a w or oo sound- in front another vowel, it would be the w- sound (VIVAT BRVTVS ‘long live Brutus’ was pronounced “wee-watt broo-tooss”); they didn’t bother making separate letters then, and when in late imperial times, the pronunciation had shifted to its modern sound, they still didn’t bother to come up with separate letters. In English, u still has the “w” sound after q (quick could have been spelled cwic, and in Old English it was)

In the Middle Ages, a tradition formed to use the angular V to start words, and round U inside or ending words, regardless of pronunciation, thus VALOUR but also VSEFUL. In the late 1300’s, people started using the angular v for the “v” sound, and the round u for the “oo” sound, but it wasn’t until the 1500’s that this distinction started to catch on, and not until the 1600’s and 1700’s that it became the norm.

Latin did not distinguish between < i > and < j > either: depending on context, it could be the yy sound or long or short ee sound (both sounds show up in English ye). When you see the letter j being used for a y-sound in German, Dutch, Scandinavian languages etc., that is the original Latin pronunciation; English still has that in the words fjord and hallelujah).

It was only in late Imperial times that the y sound (as in ‘yoyo’) changed to the sound English associates with j (that sound shows up twice, spelled two ways, in judge - both the J and DG).

The form J was just an I with a swash, a flourish, particularly used when there were multiple i’s in a row: CXIIJ or cxiij for 113. Medieval German started distinguishing between I and J, and this caught on in the Romance languages, where the single letter I or J stood for the sounds dj and ee (both sounds show up in English gee) that no longer sounded at all alike.

Not till the King James Bible of 1629 were I and J firmly established as distinct letters in English; some parts of Europe held out for another generation or several. So when we see this ‘mix-up’ of u and v, i and j, be generous, it was not writers forgetting a distinction, it was a distinction that no one had gotten around to making yet.


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