Yogurt or yoghurt?

Mmm, still not quite as heavenly as what I remember.

Yoghurt was responsible for my second gustatory (i.e. “taste”) epiphany, back when I was an 18-year-old stripling on my first solo holiday, touring the classical sites. I do not recall whether I had eaten homegrown British versions before – back then, yoghurt was not everyday fare –, but if I had, they were blown out of the water by the nectar and ambrosia Greece fed me. On Mykonos it was bliss every morning to sit by the harbourside in the lambent morning sun sipping Greek coffee in between letting tongue-caressing, creamy γιαούρτι topped with honey seduce my virgin taste buds. (That’s enough! What do you think this is? Fifty shades of yogurt? Editor.)

Which spelling is correct?

A tweep asked me about this the other day. I’ll try to answer, drawing principally on the OED. The lady raised the issue because her son works in an upmarket British supermarket beginning with W… and had noticed that both spellings were used. Said lady is an editor, so it’s good to see that apples don’t fall far from trees.

The short answer is, of course, both are “right”. How you spell it personally, if you need to spell it at all, can simply be a matter of taste (boom-boom). In fact, the OED lists a staggering 34 variant spellings down the centuries for this loanword from Turkish, and we might have ended up spelling it jaghur, yaourt (as in modern French) or even giaourti, as in Greek, or any of the other variations. The OED divides the recorded forms into those with/without h (there are more, historically, of the first) and those with/without g (e.g. yagourt vs yaourt). It points out that this multiplicity of forms is because writers writing it in English used the spelling of the language they were borrowing from, as for example in this translation from French:

A kind of Butter-milk by them [sc. Turks] called Yogourt [Fr. yogourt], which they drink.

A. Lovell tr. J. de Thévenot Trav. into Levant ii. 25  

At its first appearance in English it was just one letter adrift from the modern spelling:

Neither doe they [sc. the Turks] eate much Milke, except it bee made sower, which they call Yoghurd.

Samuel Purchas.

The catchy title of his book – they sure don’t make them like that anymore – is Hakluytus Posthumus or Purchas his pilgrimes. Contayning a history of the world, in sea voyages & lande-travells, by Englishmen & others…Some left written by M. Hakluyt at his death. More since added. In fower parts

And the earliest citation in the OED for the h-form is from 1925 and for the h-less form from 1956.

Nowadays, there are a mere two geographical variations, or flavours, if you will. As the OED entry (third edn., Sept. 2016) notes:

“The spelling yoghurt is frequent in British written sources, as also in Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. However, yogurt (which is by far the dominant form in the United States) predominates in most everyday contexts in Britain, as for instance in food packaging.”

Turkish poached eggs with yoghurt: now, that sounds good for breakfast.

To ‘g’ or not to ‘g’, that is the question.

As we’ll see, when we look briefly at history, there’s a reason for that g. Our first question, though, is whether to h.

In the Oxford database I generally use, the spelling yoghurt is “lemmatized” on yogurt, which means that yogurt is taken to be the main form, as per the OED. Here’s a table with the results, followed by some explanation.

Variety of English Yogurt(s) Yoghurt(s)
  # examples  Frequency (%) # examples Frequency (%)
British 1,961 198.2 338 16.5
US 75 4.8 5,158 161.3
OZ 237 143.0 41 12.0
NZ 157 215.6 10 6.7
India 84 103.6 76 45.4
SA 40 91.0 21 23.1
Irish 141 85.6 134 39.4
Total 3,369   6,955  

Notes: a) Yogurt(s) and Yoghurt(s) cover all four spellings/forms for each, i.e. yogurt, Yogurt, yogurts, Yogurts; b) the totals exceed the sum of the rows because some figures are omitted.

The “Frequency” column shows as a percentage how much more/less often the word form shows up in that section of the database (corpus) compared to the whole corpus. So, for yogurt in British English that figure is nearly twice 100% whereas for U.S. English it is vanishingly low. Confirming the OED note quoted earlier, frequencies for OZ, NZ, and SA English are high, while India is also over 100 per cent. Irish English seems to fall into line with British.

In contrast, U.S. usage for yoghurt has high frequency, whereas the other varieties shown have lower ones, especially British and New Zealand English. In keeping with that, the Oxford NZ and their OZ dictionaries have yoghurt as headword, as does Macquarie.

So what’s with the g?

The word is from Ottoman Turkish yoġurt (1451; Turkish yoğurt). Now, that letter g represents a sound which differs radically from the two sounds English speakers associate with letter g (girl vs gin, or /g/ vs /dʒ/.) Technically, so the OED informs me, “Ottoman Turkish -ġ- (corresponding to Turkish -ğ- ) originally stood for a voiced velar fricative consonant and was variously transliterated in European languages by -g- , -gh- , and -h-.” Now, a voiced velar fricative does not exist in English, but it – or slight variants of it – does in Spanish, as in the word amigo.  If you listen carefully to some Spanish speakers speaking English, they seem to almost entirely abolish certain consonants, one of them being what we would call the “hard” g in girl, when it comes between vowels.

Try saying the English word ago while keeping your throat open to say the letter g – hard, I know, but it can be done – and you’ll get a bit of an idea of the sound. Anyway, the point is that the sound is “soft” to the point of being imperceptible to ears unused to it. Which explains why some languages, as mentioned earlier, have a yourt without the g.

And as for that h, it has also been suggested, in a comment on Lynne Murphy’s blog about yog(h)urt, that at the time the word was introduced into English Turkish was written in Arabic script: “the modern letter ğ was usually written غ. This letter is usually transcribed as gh, for example in Maghreb, Abu Ghraib and Afghanistan.”

2 Comments

  1. A whole nother question is the pronunciation. Growing up in Ireland, I said yo-gurt with a long o as in Bogarde. In the UK this is stigmatised as the American pronunciation, so I have switched to a short o, i.e. yog-urt, the first syllable to rhyme with jog. Whether the chosen pronunciation relates to the spelling or not, I do not know.

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    1. Hello, Sheila.

      Gosh, I didn’t know you were following this. Yes, indeed, I can only think of a Scottish friend who pronounced it yoh-, and for me it’s always been yo-. Cambridge, Collins and 3rd edn. OED are categorical that yoh– is yankee, as is the Longman Pron Dict., but Oxford online suggests that both are British. However, the previous OED (2nd edn.) interestingly had the note (ˈjɒgət, older ˈjəʊgʊət), suggesting i.e. that the older generation pronounced it –oh. Btw, did your alumna ever get a job in the lexicog. field? Bestest regards, J.

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