It comes ultimately from Hebrew "Yochannon", via Greek Ioannes, from which German "Johannes" and Spanish "Juan" are very clear natural derivatives of that, given Greek had an h which was later lost (though the German borrowing must have come before that) and Greek/Latin IPA j becomes IPA x in Spanish, and O to U stem-change is also quite common in Spanish. It seems to me though, that the Italian SHOULD have become "Gioani", unless there is some pattern in Italian that I am unaware of.

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    "given Greek had an h which was later lost": it did? Where? In Ιωάννης?
    – terdon
    Commented Jan 15, 2017 at 13:50
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    If you pronounce "Gioani" quickly then I think "Giovanni" is a quite natural derivation of it isn't it.
    – xji
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 23:02
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    @HarryAnderson that's English, not Greek. Remember that the Greek H is not the same as the Latin one, so Ηελλας would be pronounced ielas. In any case, neither the modern nor the ancient words had an h. They only get that when transliterated to English.
    – terdon
    Commented Jan 22, 2017 at 18:55
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    There is also Serbocroatian Jovan and Ivan, and Armenian Hovhannes which presumably came relatively early and independently from Greek. Commented Dec 1, 2023 at 7:03
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    @terdon Ancient Greek did have /h/ which was later lost. It was written using what we call rough breathing in English (or spiritus asper in Latin if we’re feeling fancy), a diacritical mark that was used in writing all the way up until the writing reform in the ’70s or whenever exactly it was. So Ἑλλάς /helːás/ was not the same as Ἐλλάς /elːás/. Intervocalic /h/ had been lost before the earliest written sources, though, so rough breathing only applied word-initially, and there wouldn’t have been any /h/ in Ιωάννης. Commented Dec 1, 2023 at 9:28

3 Answers 3


There is indeed a pattern from Latin to Italian which explains this.

/oːa/ > /oua/ > /owa/ > /oβa/ > /ova/

Early Romance did not like having two different vowels next to each other with nothing in between (in linguistic terms, "in hiatus"). So a glide consonant was inserted between them. If the first vowel was /o/ or /u/, this glide tended to be a /w/ sound. (This article has more information and examples in different Romance languages.)

Then the /w/ phoneme evolved into /v/, probably through /β/. This is a well-documented process which produced most of the /v/'s in Italian, such as the initial sound in vino; in Classical Latin, that initial consonant was a /w/.

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    Do you have a source for this? I was thinking the same but couldn't find anything formal about it.
    – pablodf76
    Commented Jan 15, 2017 at 0:36
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    @pablodf76 I'll find one now. The /w/ to /v/ evolution is well-documented, and I read about the epenthetic glides recently.
    – Draconis
    Commented Jan 15, 2017 at 0:40
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    It's funny, even though I've always known that Giovanni is equivalent to Johannes etc. I've never managed to shake the idea that it's somehow related to Giove. I suppose Italians have done at least a little punning on that over the years.
    – hobbs
    Commented Jan 15, 2017 at 6:38

Evan(s) and Ivan also come from Ioannes, so whatever happened did not happen only in Italian. (Forget about the h; most Greek dialects lost it early, and Latin also lost it, and the Romance languages that gained it by other processes also lost it. I don't know how it got there in German, but it's entirely possible that it was learned, i. e. copied from the Classical Latin rendering of the name, as was the case with the name of Christ.)

Italian got the name from Latin. During the long evolution of Latin, the sounds we see today rendered orthographically as b and v changed a lot. At times there was actually no v (as in English /v/); the leter V was used to indicate /u/ as well as /w/ (some people prefer to say those were just variants of a single sound /u/, but that's of no consequence here).

Now at some point Latin /w/ changed into /β/ (a voiced bilabial fricative) and then into /v/, in certain contexts. At this point I'm guessing that more or less the same process that gave Spanish Juan its medial /u/ (phonetically [w]) and Welsh Ifan (= Evan) its /v/ also gave Italian Giovanni its /v/. It looks like there was an insertion (epenthesis) of a glide [w] between /o/ and /a/. This is to be expected as Latin and Romance languages historically tend toward CV syllables and dislike hiatus (so adjacent vowels in different syllables tend to be simplified, turned into diphthongs or separated by a consonant).

In any case it must also be taken into account that proper names often evolve (phonetically) in unpredictable ways. This is especially true of classical and biblical names.

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    I am not sure that the /v/ has "vanished" in Gianni. These are parallel dialect forms.
    – fdb
    Commented Jan 15, 2017 at 10:11

Latin Ioannes > Giovanni is the exact counterpart of Latin Genoa > Genova.

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    Well, the G's are different -- one derived, the other original -- but that's quibbling. The /v/ developed as suggested exactly the same way in both cases, from an unavoidable phonetic transition from rounded /o/ to unrounded /a/ which was reinterpreted as an intervocalic consonant phoneme, once /v/ was established elsewhere separately from /w/. This must have happened quite early in Vulgar Latin.
    – jlawler
    Commented Jan 15, 2017 at 3:01
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    @jlawler. [ʤ] is derived in both cases.
    – fdb
    Commented Jan 15, 2017 at 10:09

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