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If you look into the original Luther bible, you see that many words that are nowadays spelled with "ei" are spelled with "ey". Furthermore, if you look at names for places or people even today, you often find a y, like in Meyer or Speyer.

In modern German spelling, y is only used in imported words. Original German words don't have it.

What was the reason that we lost the y in German spelling?

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3 Answers 3

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The reason y was lost is standardisation. For instance, Ebert/Reichmann/Solms/Wegera, Frühneuhochdeutsche Grammatik, list the following variants under the heading ei / ai (§ L 27):

<ei, ey, eÿ, eih, ej, ai, ay, aÿ, aih, æi, äi, aͤi, aͤy, äy>

(The list is non-exhaustive: they also mention other variants.) Today, we are left with basically <ei>; the official rules still allow <ai> in a few words such as Hai, Kaiser, Mai (Amtliches Regelwerk, § 18), as well as for homophone disambiguation, e.g. Seite, Saite; Leib, Laib (Amtliches Regelwerk, Vorwort), with <ay, ey> surviving in names, e.g. Maier, Mayer, Meier, Meyer (ibid.).

The spreading of the printing press brought standardisation with it: in order for printed products to sell, they needed to be accessible to people in different regions, brought up in different dialects. Bit by bit, the variants disappeared, although <ey> in particular remained for a long time, especially in the function of a word-final variant of <ei>.

Jacob Grimm, in the 1854 preface to the Deutsches Wörterbuch, appears relieved that <ey> had been eliminated.

die meisten schrieben, wie sie es in der schule oder sonst im leben sich angewöhnt hatten und überlieszen wiederum den setzern die schreibart nach belieben zu verändern, d. h. dem vorherschenden brauch zu bequemen. so weichen z. b. die meisten kurz nach einander erschienenen auflagen von Fischarts Gargantua immer in kleinigkeiten ab, aus welcher sollte man einen schlusz auf seine eigne schreibung machen? auch Göthe wird sich nicht darum bekümmert haben, dasz die späteren abdrücke seiner werke einzelnes anders schrieben, z. b. die erste ausgabe des Faust von 1790 hat juristerey, gescheidter, bey, wo die jüngeren juristerei, gescheiter, bei setzen, dennoch daneben seyn behalten. […]

Einzelnen älteren schriftstellern, die den schreibgebrauch zu meistern unternahmen, wie Melissus, Weckherlin, Ph. von Zesen, darf man nur geringe, darum unwirksame sachkunde zutrauen, wiewol sie es an einigen guten vorschlägen nicht fehlen lieszen; auch die neueren, in vielen stücken vollkommen berechtigt, Klopstock, Voss, Schlözer scheiterten um derselben ursache willen, Voss unter ihnen der mäszigste richtete das meiste aus. einiges rechte, wie die entfernung des Y aus dem diphth. ei drang endlich, allem dawider erhobnen einspruch zum trotz, allgemein durch.

(https://woerterbuchnetz.de/Woerterbuecher/DWB/vor01.html)

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    I think the "y was lost" in your first sentence is a bit misleading - "y" rather made a (relatively short) guest appearance in German language history, i.e. was never really present.
    – tofro
    Oct 2, 2023 at 9:30
  • The wording is that of the question. Short is a subjective term, but I definitely would not dismiss <y> for /i/ in the period from the 14th to the 18th century as "never really present". It is tied up with the spread of the printed book, therefore by virtue of numbers <y> (for /i/) up to 1800 is present in most German texts. To get a glimpse at the variety and temporal range, see for instance the examples listed under bei in Frühneuhochdeutches Wörterbuch.
    – David Vogt
    Oct 2, 2023 at 10:30
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The "y" in German can basically represent three sounds:

  • "ü" in Greek loanwords, like in Analyse
  • the vowel sound "i" in loanwords from English, like in Hobby
  • at the start of words, when followed by a vowel the consonant sound of "J", like in Yacht, so "y" can be both considered a vowel and a consonant in German.

Each of these is a position actually already occupied by another letter. A more appropriate question would actually be "why do we need it then at all?". In fact, you won't find a single word except proper nouns and loanwords that would use it in German.

"y" used to be used for a "long i" (actually, as a ligature of "i" and "j", which is still a vowel combination present in Dutch), mainly in combinations with "ai" and "ei", like in "seyn" (sein) and "Brey" (Brei) . In Kurrent writing, this ligature looked a lot like "y" and, for a very limited time there was the habit of writing the long "i" as "y". This redundancy somewhat got lost over time and the y became extinct from German writing, it is the third least-used letter in German after Q and X.

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You have to ask what the reason for ey was originally. For that, have a look at German cursive, the Kurrent script.

The small e looks like small n already, small i looks almost like small c but the combination ei is especially tricky as it looks almost like m. That's why many people preferred ey.

But the Grimm brothers settled on ei nonetheless with their dictionary.

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