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I learned a few days ago that "j" is a fairly new letter. I looked up some samples of antique French books (pre-1633) and found a lot of words like (Saint)"Iaques", "ie", "iamais", "iambon", "iamais", "Ieanne"(d'arc), "iour", "iouer", "iolis".

A Google literal search (word literal in quotes) shows a whole bunch of text that uses "i" where I expect "j" to be. For example:

ESSAIS DE MONTAIGNE SUIVIS DE SA CORRESPONDANCE

or

A sample from Clelie, histoire romaine. Par Mr de Scudery, gouuerneur de Nostre ..., Volume 8

or

1621 Ieanne D'Arc

I tried to find a text on the evolution of the French language to try to find out when this change occurred and whether it still sounded like /ʒ/ or if there was some kind of dialects using the traditional /j/ pronunciations (like y in "yes") at some point, but I could not find any mention of this change online.

Does anybody know how these words sounded back then, did they still use /ʒ/ or was it /j/? And was it always /ʒ/ or was there a time when French used /j/ or /h/ instead?

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  • Très intéressant, notons aussi l'absence de distinction u/v, écrit U en milieu du mot : auez pour avez, souuenir pour souvenir. Et V en début de mot : vn (un), vous. – XouDo May 10 at 14:03
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The change in spelling from i to j was not connected to any immediate change in pronunciation. Words like iamais, iambon, iour were already pronounced with /ʒ/ at that point, according to the Wikipedia article "Phonological history of French" (not really a reliable source, but it agrees with what I remember reading elsewhere about this point).

The Old French ancestors of such words most likely contained an affricate /dʒ/, like the j in English jump, rather than the fricative /ʒ/, although I think there is a bit of uncertainty about this.

I don't think that /j/ was used at any time during the period in which we call the language "French". Ultimately, some cases of "j" do go back to /j/ in Latin, such as in jus from Latin ius /juːs/, although others go back to g as in jambe from Latin gamba or z as in jaloux from Latin zelosus.

The sound that is now /ʒ/ was never pronounced like /h/ in French. The pronunciation of Spanish j as a voiceless fricative /x/, /χ/ or /h/ is a further development from a series of sound changes from /ʒ/ to /ʃ/ to /x/.

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