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Z is the twenty-sixth and last letter of the English alphabet.

In almost all forms of Commonwealth English, the letter is named zed, reflecting its derivation from the Greek zeta (see below). Other European languages use a similar form, e.g. the French zde, Spanish and Italian zeta. In Canadian English the letter is pronounced zed; and it is a point of national pride and was even featured in Molson's I Am Canadian campaign. The American English form zee derives from an English late 17th-century dialectal form, now obsolete in England. Another English dialectal form is izzard, which dates from the mid 18th-century, probably deriving from French et zde meaning and z, or else from s hard.

In early Latin the sound represented by Z passed into R, and consequently the symbol became useless. It was therefore removed from the alphabet and G put in its place. In the 1st century BC it was, like Y, introduced again at the end, in order to represent more precisely than was before possible the value of the Greek Z or zeta, which had been previously spelt with S at the beginning and ss in the middle of words: sona = ζωνη, "belt"; trapessita = τραπεζιτης, "banker".

Until recent times the English alphabets used by children terminated not with Z but with & or related typographic symbols. George Eliot refers to the Zs being followed by & when she makes Jacob Storey say, "He thought it [Z] had only been put to finish off th' alphabet like; though ampusand would ha' done as well, for what he could see."

The Greek form of Z was a close copy of the Phoenician symbol I, and the Greek inscriptional form remained in this shape throughout. In Semitic (Zajin) and Ancient Greek the letter was probably pronounced as /dz/ (as in Italian zeta, zero). In Modern Greek, it is pronounced as /z/, as in English and French.

The name of the Semitic symbol was Zayin, but this name, for some unknown reason, was not adopted by the Greeks, who called it Zeta. Whether, as seems most likely, Zeta was the name of one of the other Semitic sibilants, Zade (Tzaddi) transferred to this by mistake, or whether the name is a new one, made in imitation of Eta (η) and Theta (θ), is disputed. The pronunciation of the Semitic letter was the voiced S, like the ordinary use of Z in English, as in zodiac, raze.

It is probable that in Greek there was a considerable variety of pronunciation from dialect to dialect. In the earlier Greek of Athens, Northwest Greece and Lesbos the pronunciation seems to have been zd; in Attic from the 4th century BC onwards it seems to have been only a voiced s, and this also was probably the pronunciation of the dialect from which Latin borrowed its Greek words. In other dialects, as Elean and Cretan, the symbol was apparently used for sounds resembling the English voiced and unvoiced th (ð, þ). In the common dialect (κοινη) which succeeded the older dialects, ζ became a voiced s, as it remains in modern Greek.

In Etruscan, Z probably symbolized /ts/, in Latin, [dz] (in Latin, the letter appeared only in Greek words, and Z is the only letter besides Y that the Romans took over directly from the Greek, and unlike all other letters not via Etruscan.)

In Vulgar Latin the Greek Z seems to have been pronounced as dy and later y; di being found for Z in words like baptidiare for baptizare "baptize", while conversely Z appears for di in forms like zaconus, zabulus, for diaconus "deacon", diabulus, "devil". Z also is often written for the consonantal I (that is, J) as in zunior for junior "younger".

In Italian, Z represents two phonemes, namely /ts/ and /dz/; in German, it stands for /ts/; in Castilian Spanish it represents /θ/ (as English th in thing), though in other dialects (Latin American, Andalusian) it is pronounced as [s] (and word-finally, [s], [x], [h] or Ø), making haz, has and even ha homophones.

Besides the above Latin forms, there was a more cultured Vulgate pronunciation of Z as dz, which passed through French into Middle English.

Early English had used S alone for both the unvoiced and the voiced sibilant; the Latin sound imported through French was new and was not written with Z but with G or I. The successive changes can be well seen in the double forms from the same original, jealous and zealous. Both of these come from a late Latin zelosus, derived from the imported Greek ζηλος. Much the earlier form is jealous; its initial sound is the dz which in later French is changed to Z (voiced s). It is written gelows or iclous by Wycliffe and his contemporaries, the form with I is the ancestor of the modern form. The later word zealous was borrowed after the French dz had become Z. At the end of words this Z was pronounced ts as in the English assets, which comes from a late Latin ad satis through an early French assez "enough". See English plural.

With Z also is frequently written zh, the voiced form of sh, in azure, seizure. But it appears even more frequently as s-before-u, and as si before other vowels in measure, decision, etc., or in foreign words as G, as in rouge. For the <inverted ε> representing G and Y in Scottish proper names see under V.

No words in the Basic English vocabulary begin with Z, but it occurs in words beginning with other letters.

(See SAMPA for the meaning of all the above phonetic symbols.)

Zulu represents the letter Z in the NATO phonetic alphabet.

In Shakespeare's King Lear Z is used as an insult. A character is called a "whoresome zed", intimating that Z (in Shakespearean English at any rate) is a useless letter, like the person on the receiving end of the insult.

Meanings for Z

See also

  • ?
  • Ź
  • Ż

Last updated: 10-24-2005 18:15:04
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