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/// How alphabets have changed jurisprudence, justice, and law

Centuries after the Roman Empire disintegrated,[1] the terminology of Roman law continues to influence our world.[2]  An examination of three legal terms – “jurisprudence,” “justice,” and “law” – will help us appreciate the variety of that linguistic legacy and the writing system with which it is associated, the Latin alphabet.[3]

The number of letters in the Latin alphabet increased from 21 to 23 with the inclusion of “y” and “z” during the first century of the Common Era and then to 26 letters with the differentiation of “j” from “i” and of “u” and “w” from “v” during the Middle Ages.[4]  Of particular interest is the initial symbol and sound in jus and juris[5] (or ius and iuris),[6] which were the nominative[7] and genitive[8] cases of one of the Latin terms for law.[9]

The “i” or “j” at the beginning sounded like the “y” in the English word “yet.”[10]  A different symbol or sound begins descendants of jus and juris in English (“jurisprudence,” “justice”), French (jurisprudence, justice), Italian (giurisprudenza, giustizia), and Spanish (jurisprudencia, justicia)[11]:

• /ʤ/ for the English “j,”[12] which sounds like the “j” in “jar,” the “g” in “logic” or “gentle,” or the “di” in “soldier”;[13]

• /ʒ/ for the French j,[14] which sounds like the “j” the French word jeune or like the “s” in the English word “vision”;[15]

• /ʤ/ for the Italian g,[16] which sounds like the “g” in the Italian word gente or the “j” in the English word “jam”;[17] and

• /x/ for the Spanish j,[18] which sounds like the “ch in Scottish loch or German auch.”[19]

Lex and legis[20] were the nominative and genitive of another Latin term for law.[21]  The descendants of lex and legis include terms in French (loi), Italian (legge), and Spanish (ley),[22]  but the English term “law” is a descendant of a term — lagu — that Old English borrowed from Scandinavian before the Norman Conquest.[23]  A series of variations in spelling[24] and pronunciation,[25] and the addition of the letter “w” to the English alphabet,[26] transformed lagu – or lɑʒu[27] — into “law.”

The Latin alphabet is only one of a number of alternative writing systems,[28] of course, so the variety of terms for jurisprudence, justice, and law is vast.  The more variations that we include in the vocabulary of our global community of law, the more interesting and significant the lessons will be.[29]


[1] Historian Edward Gibbon explained that “[t]he precise year in which the Western Empire was extinguished is not positively ascertained.  The vulgar æra of A.D. 476 appears to have the sanction of authentic chronicles.”  Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (New York: Heritage Press, 1946), 2:1143 n. 89 (italics omitted).  Gibbon identified May 29, 1453, as the day on which the forces of the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople.  Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 3:2348.

[2] Professor Tore Janson described the influence of Roman law on legal education:

After the fall of the Roman empire in western Europe both legal science and the administration of justice waned, but from the eleventh century properly founded legal education resumed in Bologna, in what is usually considered Europe’s first university.  This education was totally based on Roman law, and for many centuries thereafter Roman law was the foundation of the legal system in most European countries.  Even as late as the nineteenth century, Roman law survived almost intact in the legal systems of many countries in south and west Europe, from Portugal to Germany.  It is still important for students of law in the western world to know the basics of Roman law, which is an independent subject in most Faculties of Law.

One reason for this is that the Romans created a complete system of terms and concepts which were well thought out and readily applicable.  They have formed the basis for jurisprudence for some two thousand years, and they still turn up in modern debates.

Tore Janson, A Natural History of Latin, trans. Merethe Damsgård Sørensen and Nigel Vincent (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 71.

[3] Linguist Yuen Ren Chao described the influence of the Latin alphabet almost a half-century ago:

The Latin alphabet is so widely used that it would not be practical in this brief survey of writing systems even to enumerate the languages written with it.  As a result of the political and cultural ascendancy of Western Europe during recent centuries, it has been newly adopted by many languages.  The Latin alphabet is used in all of Europe except for those areas . . . which use the Cyrillic system, and Greece, which continues to use the Greek alphabet.  From Europe it has been adopted in modern times by such diverse languages as Turkish, Swahili, Vietnamese, and Indonesian, in each of which the Latin alphabet has replaced an older script.

Yuen Ren Chao, Language and Symbolic Systems (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1968), 109-10 (italics omitted).

[4] Linguist David Diringer wrote one account the adoption of y and z and the differentiation of j from i and of u and w from ʋ:

When, after the conquest of Greece, in Cicero’s time (first century B.C.), Greek words were largely borrowed by the Latin language, the symbols Y and Z were adopted for the sounds y and z respectively, from the contemporary Greek alphabet (but only in order to transliterate Greek words), and were placed at the end of the alphabet.  Thus the Latin script became one of twenty-three symbols; these became more regular, harmonious, well proportioned and elegant.

Although there were even in Roman times a few tentative additions of letters, . . . on the whole it can be said that the aforementioned alphabet of 23 letters was constantly used, with the same order of the letters, not only in the monumental writing of the Roman period, but also as capital letters of the Latin alphabet during the Middle Ages and in printing until the present day.

The only permanent additions of the Middle Ages were the signs U, W and J; in exact terms, they were not additions, but differentiations from existing letters; the U (for the vowel-sound u to distinguish it from the consonantal ʋ) and the consonantal W were easy differentiations of V, while J, the consonantal i, is only a slight alteration of I.  In the early Middle Ages both the forms (but not the W, which appeared only in the eleventh century) were used indifferently for both the consonantal and the vowel-sound, the signs U and J being used in hands current at this time.

David Diringer, The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind, 2nd ed. (New York: Philosophical Library, [1948]), 538 (internal references omitted).

[5] Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short, A Latin Dictionary: Founded on Andrews’ Edition of Freund’s Latin Dictionary; Revised, Enlarged, and in Great Part Rewritten (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955), s.v. “2. jūs.”

The examples of third declension nouns and adjectives include the nominative jus and the genitive juris.  “Beginners’ Latin: Activities; Lesson 7, Third declension nouns and adjectives,” The National Archives, accessed November 1, 2016,

[6] P.G.W. Glare, ed., Oxford Latin Dictionary (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), s.v. “iūs2.”

With regard to the inconsistent employment of “j” and “u,” Janson explained the situation as it existed at the beginning of the 21st century:

The usual modern spelling of Latin is a compromise in which the distinction between u and v has been adopted but not the one between i and j.  It is this practice which we follow in this book, and so we make a difference between villa and urna but not between iustitia and intellectus.  There are, however, many editions and dictionaries where j is used and the spelling is consequently justitia and Julius for example.  Moreover, there are also many experts who do not like these reforms at all, and hence still write uilla beside iustitia and Iulius.  On this point, then, there is still disagreement about how to spell Latin.

Janson, A Natural History of Latin, 115.

[7] “The first of the six cases of a noun. Used for the subject of a sentence.”   “Beginners’ Latin: Glossary,” National Archives, accessed November 1, 2016,

[8] “The fourth of the six cases of a noun. The genitive case is used for nouns that are ‘of’ something else and also to show possession.”  “Beginners’ Latin: Glossary,” National Archives, accessed November 8, 2016,

[9] The Oxford Latin Dictionary of P.G.W. Glare lists thirteen senses for the term ius, including “[t]hat which is sanctioned or ordained, law”; “[a] legal system or code (with all the technicalities)”; “[a] particular provision of the legal code, a law, rule or ordinance”; and “[t]he binding decision(s) of a magistrate, judicial pronouncement(s).”  Glare, Oxford Latin Dictionary, s.v. “iūs2.”

[10] Janson explained that “[t]he rare letter y (originally a letter for a vowel in the Greek alphabet) is used for one sound [in English], and j for the other, as in yet and jet.  This distinction did not exist in Latin.  The consonant that is denoted i or j was pronounced like the first sound in yet.” Janson, A Natural History of Latin, 115.

[11] James H. Dee, comp., A Lexicon of Latin Derivatives in Italian, Spanish, French, and English: A Synoptic Etymological Thesaurus with Full Indices for Each Language (Hildesheim: Olms-Weidmann, 1997), 1:247-48.

[12] Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles, 6th ed., s.v.v. “jurisprudence,” “justice.”

[13] “Pronunciation guide,” in Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, xliii.

[14] Marie-Hélène Corréard et al., eds., The Oxford-Hachette French Dictionary: French-English; English-French, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 474-75.

[15] “The Pronunciation of French”, in Corréard et al., The Oxford-Hachette French Dictionary, xxxvi; “Prononciation de l’anglais,” in Corréard et al., The Oxford-Hachette French Dictionary, xxxvi, xxxviii.

[16] Joanna Rubery and Fabrizio Cicoira, eds., Oxford-Paravia Italian Dictionary: English-Italian; Italian-English, 3rd ed. (Milano-Torino: Pearson Italia, 2010), s.v.v. “giurisprudenza,” “giustizia.”

[17] “Simboli Fonetici / Phonetic symbols,” in Rubery and Civoira, Oxford-Paravia Italian Dictionary, [xvii].

[18] In Spanish, “J is always pronounced /x/ (jamón /xamˈon/, jefe /ˈxefe/).”  Beatriz Galimberti Jarman et al., eds., Gran diccionario Oxford: Español-inglés; inglés-español, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), xliv.

[19] Galimberti Jarman et al., Gran diccionario Oxford, xliii

[20] The endings of lex and legis are the same as those of the nominative rex and the genitive regis.  “Beginners’ Latin: Activities; Lesson 7, Third declension nouns and adjectives,” The National Archives, accessed November 1, 2016,

[21] The Oxford Latin Dictionary lists thirteen senses for the term lex, including “[a]n enactment of a sovereign power, law, statute”; “[t]he laws regarded as a body, the constitution”; “[a] rule made by any authority, ordinance, regulation”; and “[a] law or rule established by divine authority or universally accepted by mankind.”  Glare, Oxford Latin Dictionary, s.v. “lex.”

[22] Dee, A Lexicon of Latin Derivatives in Italian, Spanish, French, and English, 1:261.

[23] Linguist Otto Jespersen noted that English imported “a great many Scandinavian law-terms”:

The most important of these juridical imports is the word law itself, known in England from the 10th century in the form lagu, which must have been the exact Scandinavian form, as it is the direct forerunner of the [Old Norse] form lǫg, [Old Danish] logh. . . . It will be seen that with the exception of law, bylaw, thrall and crave — the least juridical of them all — these Danish law-terms have disappeared from the language as a simple consequence of the Norman conquerors taking into their own hands the courts of justice and legal affairs generally.

Otto Jespersen, Growth and Structure of the English Language, 9th ed. (Garden City: Doubleday Anchor, 1956), 75-76 (footnote omitted, “Old Norse” substituted for “ON” and “Old Danish” substituted for “ODan.”).

[24] Professor David Mellinkoff noted that the term “law,” in Middle English “could be spelled a couple dozen ways” and referred to the Oxford English Dictionary for the examples “lach, lɑewe, lɑgh, lɑghe, lɑhɑ, lɑu, lɑuh, lɑw, and even lɑugh.”  David Mellinkoff, The Language of the Law (Eugene: Resource Publications, 2004), 84.

[25] Jespersen included “law” among the examples of Scandinavian (Scn) words in his explanation of the Old English (OE) spellings from which the dipthong /au/ of early Modern English originated:

Secondly /au/ is from OE a + ɡ; ɡ stood for the back-open consonant which became rounded and then was practically ═ /w/ or /u/: haw OE haɡa . gnaw OE gnaɡan . maw OE maɡa. saw sb OE saɡa saɡu . draw OE draɡan . dawn OE daɡnian . fawn ‘cringe’ OE faɡnian ‘rejoice’.  The same in Scn words: law OE and Scn laɡu . awe Scn aɡe . flaw scn flaɡa.

Jespersen, A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles (n.p.: 1954), 1:107.

In “Present English,” Jespersen explained that the dipthong /au/ has been replaced by the sound “[ᴐ∙]” in words such as “saw [sᴐ∙], law, awe; in cause; in all [ᴐ∙l], ball, baldballed [bᴐ∙ld], in talk [tᴐ∙k], walk [wᴐ∙k].”  Jespersen, A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles, 1:311 (brackets in original).

[26] This account of the origin of the English letter “w” is from Jespersen:

The [Old English] symbol for this sound [/w/] was ƿ (cf. Runic Ƿ ‘woen’), which in most modern editions is printed w.  The new letter w — two interlaced v’s — was adopted from French and became usual from the 12th century.  As ʋ was also used for the vowel u, the name was ‘double u’, now [pronunciation] [ˈdʌblju].  In the [Middle English] period uu was also frequently written; in the early days of printing, vv or VV was often used.

Jespersen, A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles, 1:37 (internal reference omitted).

[27] An alternative form of this Old English term for “law” was lɑʒu.  Mellinkoff, The Language of the Law, 84.  Jespersen noted that “[t]he [Old English] (Irish) form of the letter ɡ was ʒ,” but the shape of the letter changed for some sounds under the influence of the Normans, and other letters were substituted for other sounds.  Otto Jespersen, A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles, 1:22.

[28] The alternatives to the Latin alphabet include the Arabic and Cyrillic alphabets as well as the Chinese and Japanese writing systems.  Chao, Language and Symbolic Systems, 109.

[29] Chao emphasized the value of variety in a speech community:

There is no complete uniformity in any speech community; there is always mixture of dialects in the same locality; there is class difference; there is difference in speech reflected by different personalities for the same dialect or same class; above all, there is difference in style in the same individual.  Thus, the more precisely we pinpoint a language in the speech of one individual at one time, perhaps the neural disposition of his brain at a given instant, the less significant it is for the language as a whole, while the more we include in the account about a language, the fuzzier the picture is, but the more interesting and significant it is.

Chao, Language and Symbolic Systems, 123.

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