I understand that in German, the letter j is often used as some kind of i
For example:

  • Sowjet means soviet
  • Objekt means object

While the words Jannine or Jessica would be transliterated and likely pronounced the same as they would in English, the same will not apply for Jedes Jahr kommt Jürgen.

My question

How does German j differ from German i in general and is there a standard or non-standard or officially proposed diacritic for German speakers to differ between the two types of starting j?

Side notes:

I assume and I might be wrong that the German j often acts similar to the Thai vowel Mai malai ().

user:c.p, By "transliterated" I meant to write a word that originally written by alphabet A (say English) by alphabet B (say German) in such a way that people who read it by alphabet B would generally read it as if it was originally aimed to be read when written by alphabet A.


5 Answers 5


Short and practical answer:

In originally German words1, i and j are both pronounced like i. The difference is simply that j is used in front of other vowels.

Jürgen jagt jede junge Jodlerin.

In pronunciation there is a smooth transition from j (respectively the sound "i") to the following vowel. It seems natural to interpret this j as a vowel.

Whereas all other pronunciations of j occur in words coming from other languages, especially French or English.

Janine, Janou und Jessica joggen als Journalistinnen zum Job-Center.

Here the j is pronounced like "zh" (Janine, Janou, Journalist) and "dzh" (Jessia, joggen, Job). Note that here the j stands for consonants, not vowels.


1 Yes, "originally German words" is a super problematic term. A discussion could start with the word Joghurt. (And Jesus, if names count as words.)

Jokes aside, a better way to phrase it, instead of "orignal German words", would probably be: "Words that have been common in everyday German for quite a time (e.g. two centuries) so that they are now generally forgotten to have come from neighbouring languages once." Uh... okay. That's a bit lenghty. And of course, it is not a fixed set of words.

An interesting double-life has the word Jazz. You meet it both as Jazz /dzhäs/ like in English, and Jazz /iats/ as pronounced following traditional German letter-to-sound pronunciation rules.

Also interesting: the English word joke /dzhouk/ exists in German also (although rarely used) as Jokus /iokus/, i.e. as a direct takeover from Latin and - perceived - Latin pronunciation.

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    I cannot think of any word or name from French or English starting with "j" where I would pronounce it "zh", I would always say "dzh", including Janine or Jacques. That, however, may be a regional issue, you are living much closer to the French border than me. Apart from that I agree with your post. Dec 11, 2019 at 21:10
  • @VolkerLandgraf Your perception seems to be affected by the ubiquitous tendency to adjust everything to English (or US American). In French, Janine, Janou, Jacques etc. are pronounced "zh...", and that's the educated way to pronounce it in German, too. - I admit that conciderable parts of German speaking population do not practice this anymore. (Too exposed to US habits.) Most irritatingly, even in Deutschlandfunk German public radio 90 per cent of journalists pronounce German Journalismus [DE: "zhu..."] the English way as "dzhö..." I hear this and get the creeps. Dec 12, 2019 at 10:17
  • And just along the way you managed to find a word with french origin where I indeed pronounce the "j" as "zh" :-) But in general I think that it is mostly the people of those parts of Germany (south west) that are close to French speaking neighbouring countries (and therefore are beeing exposed to French speaking people) that maintain the original French pronounciation. Dec 12, 2019 at 14:45
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    "i and j are both pronounced like i" - I disagree. When I pronounce, say, "ia", e.g. in "Dia", my tongue does not come close to the upper side of the mouth. When I pronounce "ja", it does almost (?) touch it, though. It is indeed difficult to hear the difference in normal speaking, but it is not true that they are pronounced the same. 'j' is indeed like the 'ch' in 'ich', just with less of an airflow, i.e. softer. Sep 27, 2023 at 21:45

Linguistically, the [i̯] and [j] sounds are very similar1 – and they can actually both represent the /j/ sound in jedes. Which one is used depends mainly on the language in question, and (often) reflects whether linguists consider the sound a vowel or consonant in the word in question.

One example for this is Swedish, in which the word for "me", mig, is often transcribed [mɛj], although the nearly rhyming English word day is traditionally transcribed [deɪ̯] (I'll be the first to admit this is an imperfect match, so if anyone has better examples, I'd welcome them).

To me, it sounds like your native language traditionally treats the German /j/ sound as an initial [i̯] sound, as in [i̯eːdəs], instead of [jeːdəs].

For you, the most helpful thing to know is that German treats that sound as a consonant, and thus thinks of it as being a /j/ sound. Most people will be utterly confused if you talk about /j/ and /i/ being similar or the same, but as far as your pronunciation goes, it (probably) will make no difference if you think about it the same way your native language does.

1. Note the small arch under the [i]. This marks the fact that the [i] does not form its own syllable, instead combining with the previous or following vowel as a diphthong.


Most of all, the two letters differ by one being considered a consonant and the other being considered a vowel. If that seems circular, that is because there is a certain circularity in the use of these letters.

Obviously, in the case of a single vowel sound between consonants or between a consonant and the beginning or end of a word, only i can be used.

By spelling tradition, a diphthong that ends in the [i̯] or [j] sound will usually be represented with i. On the other hand, a diphthong that begins with that type of sounds will usually be written with j. A word such as Leier is typically considered to consist of the syllables Lei and er while a word such as Koje will be considered to consist of the syllables Ko and je, meaning the glide is to the i in the former or from the j in the latter. However, this distinction is not fully strict. The name Hoyer from a local councillor (with a y, just to complicate matters) can sound as much as Ho-yer as it can Hoy-er.

In some cases, one encounters monosyllabic consonant-i-vowel or consonant-j-vowel sequences where the decision between the two seems really arbitrary. And essentially, it is. The only thing that might come to mind is that a native German may be tempted to read the i as its own syllable, especially in slow or dictating speech. However, there are also cases such as Diadem which is clearly a three-syllable word.

In the case of Sowjet, given the spelling it is typically analysed as Sow-jet. If it were spelt *Sowiet, a case could be made for analysing it So-wi-et or So-wiet which usually doesn’t happen – although those more familiar with Russian might still tend towards a So-wjet-style pronunciation. Am I getting nowhere? Correct because we cannot get anywhere.

Part of the confusion is that the disctincion between i and j is still comparably young. The manual for the Unifraktur Maguntia font states:

In some early fraktur texts, j was used at the beginning of a word for both, i and j, while everywhere else i was used for both.

Early fraktur texts should be placed around the 16th century, so a clear distinction between i and j is only about 500 years old – with capital I and J remaining undistinguished in German blackletter type until well into the 19th century. Arguably, this is still older than the development of separate u and v letters but equally arguably the latter are more clearly distinguished in speech.

As for the names you have given, Jannine and Jessica with a /j/ sound at the beginning of the word are entirely possible. I somehow seem to recall having met a /j/-Jessica at one point in my life. Although it is probably true that the more prevalent forms are the ones with English pronunciation of the J.

It’s worth noting that the discussions above do not necessarily apply to loan words, especially if the language of origin uses the Latin alphabet. Thus, Jalousie and Journal are pronounced with French j while Junta is sometimes pronounced with an approximation of a Spanish j. And if one is talking about Poland’s Sejm, the j is never replaced by i even though pronunciation would suggest that.

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    "A word such as Leier is typically considered to consist of the syllables Lei and er while a word such as Koje will be considered to consist of the syllables Ko and je" - the start of the paragraph makes it sound as if this were merely a spelling convention. However, while a case could be made for "Koie" sounding the same as "Koje" (at least if one realizes the "ie" at the end doesn't belongbto the same syllable), "Lajer" would sound distinctly different from "Leier". Dec 11, 2019 at 8:23
  • @O.R.Mapper Not necessarily, it depends, it’s difficult. Spelling influences our pronunciation – at least for those who can read (see e.g. English and the pronunciation of waistcoat for an egregious example). Finnish takes the approach that i between two vowels is automatically turned into j if there is no morpheme boundary, yet from listening one could argue for both. If you play around long enough, you can get Lajer to sound like Leier. For what it’s worth, I considered Koje (with its long o) more of a stretch.
    – Jan
    Dec 11, 2019 at 8:28
  • True, the combination "oi" could also easily be read like "eu"/"äu". Dec 11, 2019 at 8:58
  • The above notwithstanding, I think when you write "French j", for most dialects in Germany that should rather be "English j". Plenty of Germans pronounce the respective loanwords more like in English (/dʒ/), whereas the French pronunciation is more like /ʒ/. Dec 11, 2019 at 9:03
  • While I can recall hearing Schalousie (both voiced and unvoiced, the latter often with humourous intent) I cannot recall Dschalousie. I wouldn’t want to rule it out though.
    – Jan
    Dec 11, 2019 at 9:08

How does German j differ from German i in general and is there a standard or non-standard or officially proposed diacritic for German speakers to differ between the two types of starting j?

One is a consonant, the other is a vowel. From that it follows that j is always followed by a vowel and i is always the nucleus of a syllable (which includes i as part of diphthongs). The pronunciation corresponds to the IPA symbol.

[j]: ja, jeder, jung …
[i]: ich, in, bin, bei …

German has a tendency to eschew phonetic spellings and keep the spelling of the source language. Therefore, speakers have to memorise cases where j is not pronounced [j], but [ʒ] (as in English vision) or [dʒ] (as in English John). The is no established convention to indicate when j is not pronounced as [j].

[ʒ]: Jalousie, Jargon, jonglieren, Journalist
[dʒ]: Jazz, Jeans, Jeep, Job, Pyjama

The examples are taken from the official rules for German spelling, section 2.8, p. 31.


Your base assumption that 'j' is often used as some kind of 'i' is wrong, as these are two different letters and never substitute one another.

There are no two types of 'j', starting or otherwise, the 'j' is always pronounced the same, except maybe in some words from foreign languages. Your first two examples are not among those exceptions.

It is not possible to determine whether a name like 'Jessica' is supposed to be pronounced according to German or English rules. Without further information, I would assume German rules for a German person, so the start of 'Jessica' would be pronounced like the start of 'Jedes'.

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