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I knew that J could be pronounced жи, like in French, but I was watching a lecture online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vFxD6YFiLfU and the speaker calls J йот instead. See for instance 4:07 and 4:37. Are жи and йот as the name of J interchangeable in all contexts, or is one used far more than the other?

I gave this question a математика tag because the video is a math lecture. I've listened to math lectures in Russian and don't recall hearing anyone use the name йот before.

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    It is possible but definitely not typical to call J йот in math context. I can't recall anyone calling it that while I was studying at MIPT. It's interesting how the lecturer is having trouble forming an ordinal from йот at 1:09:47 while the phrases like икс итое, игрек житое, зед катое would come naturally to any Russian speaker who has ever heard them.
    – Quassnoi
    Sep 26 '14 at 16:06
  • @Quassnoi: At 1:06:40 he has no problem pronouncing the partial derivative of the i-th polynomial with respect to the j-th variable (по йотой переменной). And I don't think his pausing at 1:09:47 is due to trouble with pronouncing a letter. He is starting to write out the multivariable chain rule, which can be a pretty complicated thing to remember (see how it comes out in the lecture). I think he was trying to get straight which variables he needed to be using. At 1:10:40 he smoothly pronounces a partial derivative with respect to x_j (по икс йотому). I am amazed he writes with block letters!
    – KCd
    Sep 28 '14 at 4:07
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Others have commented on the correctness of the name. I'll get to why you can hear both (and probably more) versions. In the Soviet Union (and in modern Russia still), the average knowledge of foreign languages was unfortunately very limited. Since the Russian alphabet is usually different from those used in foreign languages, a lot of people can't even read Latin letters. Those who can (probably this includes all people with higher education) will usually call the letters the same way they are called in the language they studied. Thus a person with an English "background" would call it /dʒeɪ/, with French /ʒi/, with German /jɔt/.

The only situation where I expect some standardisation would be teaching math in schools. However, to be honest, I do not remember using j in school math at all. It was always a, b, c or x, y, z or m, n. Note that the classical Latin alphabet doesn't contain the letter J at all, which may explain this fact. The letters i, j, k were introduced in programming (still in school), but since computer languages are all based on English, it was natural for our teacher to go for the English names of the variables.

Remark: See comment by @user58697 below.

It's not always so though. To confirm what I am saying, my programming teacher in university obviously had a "German background". So she used to pronounce FALSE (a boolean constant) as the German falsch /falʃ/, which has the same meaning but of course a completely different pronunciation from English false.

For completeness, a small addition regarding the probable source of the two versions. Being a part of the Latin and thus also French and German alphabets (both nations dominating among foreign connections of the Russian aristocracy since the 18th century, with a relatively small addition of English and Dutch) it has however significantly different names in the two. Hence no "common" name could be borrowed into Russian. The same happened to G, H and Y, which also have kept two names each (the latter is called ипсилон in Russian rather than юпсилон in German, because we don't have a sound to represent the German Y=Ü; ю is pronounced /ju/). V and W have escaped this pattern: being called significantly different in German and French, they have both taken on the French names in Russian.

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  • Thank you for this interesting answer. If a chemical symbol like H_2O were pronounced out loud, would be either аш два о айч два о depending on the speaker's background? Or are chemical symbols never pronounced out loud in that way in Russian?
    – KCd
    Sep 29 '14 at 13:33
  • @KCd: Chemical elements are pronounced. For H2O it's easy: аш-два-о and only so. Firstly, chemistry, unlike programming, has always been taught in school, hence the "proper" pronunciation. Secondly, chemistry, biology and medicine traditionally use Latin throughout Europe. Note that there is no chemical element with symbol J.
    – texnic
    Sep 29 '14 at 19:36
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    Nitpicking: i,j,k didn't come from programming. In linear algebra they were standard names for unit vectors of a basis (and consequently in physics); in analysis it was also very typical to use them as indices in nested series. Meanwhile, I studied heavy-duty math until mid-eighties, and haven't ever heard a йот morph. It must be a "recent" addition.
    – user58697
    Oct 6 '14 at 21:11
  • @user58697: You are absolutely right about the vectors, I either forgot it or programming started actually before vector math in my school. I wonder how j was pronounced by your teachers in school. If it was /dʒeɪ/ then did they also pronounce all other letters the English way?
    – texnic
    Oct 8 '14 at 15:58
  • All letters were pronounced "latin" way: eg цэ, аш, жи, игрек.
    – user58697
    Oct 8 '14 at 17:03
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The two names, йот and жи, are equally correct, this table lists them both under "классическое русское название буквы". I don't go in for mathematics a lot so as to comment on their disrtibution, but when I studied at the mathematics school in the early 90s, we used жи.

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I learnt physics, and I don't remember that on lectures anyone called J йот. As far as I know, in physics, as well as in mathematical analysis lectures, J is жи, unless something changed in recent 20 years.

Also, looking at the lecture, it seems the lecturer used both J (жи) and G (же). Possibly he calls the former йот in order to avoid the confusion.

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йот is German name of letter J, so some people that learned German in school pronounce йот instead of жи

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Looks like I am going against consensus, but I've never heard J pronounced as жи! My degree is in Math/Comp Sci, and in the 80s math professors had no problems making adjectives of it: икс итое, игрек йотое, etc.

Maybe it's because the school was in Latvia, and in Latvian, as in German, J is pronounced as "Ya" (or Russian Я).

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    In Russia: икс итое, игрек житое, never heard йотое
    – kotlomoy
    Sep 28 '14 at 10:31

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