Yogh (Letter in Middle English)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

The letter yogh (ʒ) is shaped similarly to the Arabic numeral three (3).

Yogh (ʒ) was a letter of the alphabet in Middle English. According to the editors of the American Heritage Dictionary, yogh was used to "represent the sound (y) and the voiced and voiceless velar fricatives."

Yogh can be found in the original manuscript of the late-14th-century romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight [Sir Gawayn and þe Grene Knyȝt], but the letter died out during the 15th century.

Middle English yogh was derived from the insular g in Old English.

 As explained below, the letter was pronounced in different ways according to a number of factors. Although the yogh has no exact equivalent today, it can correspond to Modern English "y" as in yet, Modern English "gh" as in light, and Scottish English "ch" as in loch.

Examples and Observations

  • "The 'yogh' ... asks us to make the sound that most Germans make when they say 'ich,' which most Scots people make when they say 'loch,' which most Welsh people make when they say 'bach,' and which some Liverpudlians make when they say 'back.' As the Old English said this kind of sound a good deal, it was very useful to have a letter for it. They had the Roman 'g' which we see in the first line of Beowulf. The 'yogh' was used in the 'Middle English' period (late 12th-15th centuries) to represent the 'ch' sound, perhaps as 'g' had other work to do."
    (Michael Rose, Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story. Counterpoint, 2015)
  • Pronunciations of Yogh in Middle English
    "Yogh (ʒ) was pronounced in several different ways, according to its position in the word. Initially, yogh was pronounced like 'y,' as in Modern English 'yet.' It had the same sound after the vowels 'e,' 'i,' or 'y,' for example in the Middle English words yʒe ('eye') and hiʒe ('high'), which unlike their Modern English counterparts were pronounced with two syllables. Within words or at the ends of words, yogh or 'gh' sometimes represented the sound of 'w,' as in folʒed ('followed'), or innoʒe ('enough'), which we know from its use in rhyme was pronounced 'enow' rather than with an 'f' sound as in Modern English 'enough.' Before 't' and after 'e,' 'i,' or 'y,' yogh or 'gh' was pronounced like 'ch' in German ich (for example, in the Middle English ryʒt, 'right'); before 't' and after 'a' and 'o' it was pronounced like the 'ch' in Scottish loch or German Bach (for example, in Middle English soʒte, 'sought'). It had the same value word-finally in the word þaʒ, 'though.' However, at the ends of words, it more often represented the unvoiced sound of 's' as in Modern English 'sill'--though it may also at times have represented the ​voiced sound of 'z' as in Modern English 'zeal' (Vantuona 176)."
    (David Gould, Pearl of Great Price: A Literary Translation of the Middle English Pearl. University Press of America, 2012) 
  • The "gh" Pronunciation of Yogh
    - "[I]n Old English, ... one of the sound values of the letter yogh was /x/. ... Words like niʒt, hiʒ, burʒ, miʒt and thoʒ were respelled by French scribes with a gh, so we get night, high, burgh, might and though as common spellings for these words in early Middle English. To begin with, the gh continued to be pronounced. When we read in the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales about the little birds sleeping all through the 'nyght,' we need to take that spelling at face value and read it as /nIxt/, with the 'ch' sound of Scots loch or Welsh bach. But the /x/ disappeared from southern English during the 15th and 16th centuries. North of the border, and in some other provincial accents, it stayed--hence modern Scots spellings such as moonlicht nicht."
    (David Crystal, Spell It Out. Picador, 2014)

    - "[T]he breathy English 'g' or 'y' sound (once denoted by the English letter yogh) came to be spelled as GH. ... However, it was GH's bad luck to be left behind by subsequent, general changes in English pronunciation. Originally, in words like 'sight,' 'although,' 'cough,' or 'enough,' the Norman GH-spelling mirrored the medieval pronunciations. Yet these pronunciations later changed, variously, and today the whole family of English GH words is notoriously unphonetic in spelling--to the frustration of purists. ..."
    (David Sacks, Letter Perfect: The A-to-Z History of Our Alphabet. Knopf, 2010)

    - "The digraph gh causes difficulty. It is commonly a relic of a velar or palatal fricative that is preserved as a velar fricative /x/ in Scots, as in bricht night (bright night). (1) It is normally silent after u as in taught, drought, naughty, thought, though, through, thorough, bough, and after i as in straight, weight, height, high, light, night. (2) It is pronounced /f/ in a few words such as cough, enough, laugh, rough, tough. (3) In the following place-names in England, each gh is different: Slough (rhymes with how), Keighley ('Keethley'), Loughborough ('Luff-'). (4)  In hiccough, the gh was substituted for p (hiccup) in the mistaken belief that the word derived from cough. (5) It has disappeared in AmE draft, plow (formerly also used in BrE) and in dry, fly, sly, although preserved in the related nouns drought, flight, sleight. (6) It sometimes alternates with ch in related words: straight/stretch, taught/teach."
    (Tom McArthur, Concise Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford University Press, 2005)
  • From Yogh to Zee in Scottish English
    "The yogh owes its origin to the Irish scribes who arrived in Saxon Britain in the 8th Century and began teaching the Anglo-Saxons to write--before this, old English was written in runes ... . 

    "It fell out of favor with the Normans, whose scribes disliked non-Latin characters and replaced it with a 'y' or 'g' sound, and in the middle of words with 'gh.' But the Scottish retained the yogh in personal and place names, albeit mutating into a 'z' to please the typesetters of the day.

    "Inevitably, however, the euphemistic 'z' became a real 'z,' in some quarters at least. The surname 'MacKenzie' now almost universally takes the 'zee' sound although it would have originally been pronounced 'MacKenyie.'"
    ("Why is Menzies Pronounced Mingis?" BBC News, January 10, 2006)


    Pronunciation: YOG or yoKH

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    Nordquist, Richard. "Yogh (Letter in Middle English)." ThoughtCo, Oct. 23, 2017, thoughtco.com/yogh-letter-in-middle-english-1692452. Nordquist, Richard. (2017, October 23). Yogh (Letter in Middle English). Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/yogh-letter-in-middle-english-1692452 Nordquist, Richard. "Yogh (Letter in Middle English)." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/yogh-letter-in-middle-english-1692452 (accessed January 24, 2018).