The wicked “J”
A long, long time ago, back when the Polish word “jajko” (“egg”) was spelled “iayko”, Poles started a quarrel over the missing letter. It was necessary to reform spelling, which would allow for a unification of speech with its written version and for the elimination of chaos characterising the burgeoning Polish language. The focal point of the dispute was the inconspicuous letter “j”, which loomed large in the minds of many scholars. Some called it a “bastard child of plague and corruption”, while others saw in the letter a chance for the modernisation of the Polish language.
This dispute took place at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. The codification of spelling was a matter of practical use, but was also of political significance – the reform of language was an element of Enlightenment-driven modernisation, and the Polish language, strengthened by formalised rules, was supposed to strengthen the identity of a nation struggling to regain its independent statehood. The topic of spelling principles primarily concerned intellectuals. However, the participants in the disputes included not only linguists, but also astronomers, poets, politicians, and representatives of the military community. The environment in which Polish orthography was defined was therefore at the same time highly diverse, but also limited to a narrow group of male elites.
The “j” was supposed to allow for the recording of the sound, which had previously been marked with either “y” or “i”. There was no single rule regarding words with a “j” sound; each had their own spelling. Some wrote “oyciec”, others – “ociec” (“father”). There was also no consensus as to whether “j” was a consonant or a vowel. Those who believed that written language should be a recording of the living spoken language called for the introduction of “j” into Polish. Supporters of the etymological principle argued that words should be written in such a way as not to blur the traces of their origin. A historian described the heated conflict concerning the letter in the following way:
All who lived and wrote separated themselves into two camps, for and against “j”, and the battlefield included periodicals as well as prefaces to various literary texts. Some people exclaimed: “Poland is burning! Poland is finished!”. And they believed everything had already been lost. Others were already printing texts using the letter “j” and pointed out that Poles living 100 years later would wonder why people were so hesitant to accept such an accurate, and mathematically precise spelling.
One of great advocates of the letter “j” was Joachim Lelewel who wrote of it in the following way:
Please be bold, you who are being informed and you who are informing! Be bold! Do not be discouraged, take on these greater transformations, because if you banish the ypsilon from the Polish language, you will simultaneously fix many seeming grammatical irregularities. You will have a difficult journey, and you will expose yourself to everyone's ire, but think of how fondly you will be remembered in the future! And perhaps we will manage to accomplish our goal.
Meanwhile, opponents of spelling changes, reluctant to the introduction of the “j”, fiercely defended traditional rules. Franciszek Rychlicki stated the following:
Throw away the j, this achievement of modern spelling, this favourite child of our grammar experts. [Let me repeat:] Throw it away. I don't even want it myself, but I advise you to limit the use of this letter. Let us write “j” only at the end of syllables, but let's not use it in the middle or at the beginning. I do not understand why I should write differently than Krasicki, Karpiński, Dmuchowski, Śniadecki...
The emotional dispute over the “j” was more than just a linguistic conflict – it related to the attitude towards tradition and reflected the social, supra-individual character of language. This was a time when the concept of linguistic norms was crystallising and debates were held as to their possible sources: historical, antiquated forms or perhaps the prevailing linguistic custom and living language.
The letter “j” was ultimately introduced into Polish spelling in 1906 in Lwów. One of the poets decided to celebrate the victory of the letter with a poem, which was printed in the Warsaw-based weekly “Świat”:
After years of fighting, / Po długich latach walki,
Failures and setbacks / Porażek i zgryzoty
We can announce to the world / Ogłosić możem światu
The complete triumph of the “j” / Zupełny tryumf joty.
So anyone who has / Więc każdy, komu tylko
A heart for the ladies, / Do niewiast serce bije,
Will from now on be / Uwielbiać odtąd będzie
Loving Marja and not Maryia / (już Marję, nie Maryję.
So says the congress of Rejowski / Tak każe zjazd Rejowski,
Baudouin and A. Kryński, / Baudouin i A. Kryński,
Łoś, Tretiak, Reiter, Koppens, / Łoś, Tretiak, Reiter, Koppens,
Stein, Dikstein, Zawiliński. / Stein, Dikstein, Zawiliński.
Although common sense tells us / Chociaż rozsądek mówi,
(That incorrigible Beast) / (Ta niepoprawna bestja)
That whether rhyme is poetry / Że czy rym jest poezją
Is a big question. / To jeszcze wielka kwestja.
Although common sense tells us / Chociaż rozsądek mówi:
Write y, i, or j, / Pisz ygrek, i, lub jota
As long as your rhymes / Byleby była w rymach
Have wisdom, faith, and virtue / Twych: mądrość, wiara, cnota.
However, after the passage of a few decades this once hot conflict fizzled out, leaving no discernible trace in our memories. The letter “j” triumphed, and the norm became obvious and invisible.
In the exhibition entitled “The wicked J” (“Jota złośnica”), presented in the Centre of Polish Sculpture in Orońsko, Monika Drożyńska refers to the struggles for Polish orthography and allows history to materialise on its own terms. In the Chapel Gallery, using embroidered balls, the artist sets history in motion, turning words into flesh, and old disputes into a fun game. Drożyńska takes on the role of a juggler in order to blur the boundary between fairy tale and historical facts, and to address the nature of linguistic and political conflicts from a distance.
 Zbigniew Kloch, Między zwyczajem a normą: dyskusje o poprawności językowej w Polsce XVIII/XIX wieku [Between Custom and Norm: Discussions on Linguistic Correctness in 18th/19th Century Poland], in: “Dziennik Literacki” 1991, No. 4 (82), p. 104.
 As cited in: Maciej Malinowski, Ortografia polska od II połowy XVIII wieku do współczesności. Kodyfikacja, reformy, recepcja [Polish Orthography from the Second Half of the 18th Century to the Present. Codification, reforms, reception], doctoral dissertation, University of Silesia in Katowice, http://www.sbc.org.pl/Content/93088/doktorat3218.pdf , p. 64.
 As cited in: Urszula Sokólska, O, mowo polska, ty ziele rodzime. Wokół refleksji nad kształtem polszczyzny, University of Białystok, Białystok 2017, https://repozytorium.uwb.edu.pl/jspui/bitstream/11320/8869/1/Sok%C3%B3lska_O%20mowo%20polska_wk%C5%82ad.pdf, p. 26.
 As cited in: Maciej Malinowski, Ortografia polska od II połowy XVIII wieku do współczesności…, p. 83.
 The poem was published in the weekly magazine “Świat” by a poet writing under the pen name C. hr. Z. As cited in: Maciej Malinowski, Ortografia polska od II połowy XVIII wieku do współczesności…, p. 108.