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24 April 2015

I

Earlier on today, we tweeted this:
It’s always nice to discover words for things you didn’t realise have names (we’re looking at you vartiwell, piqûre and manicule), and tittle undoubtedly falls into that category. But this great little fact raises a great little question: why do we even bother to put a dot over the letters i and j at all? 

Actually, the second part of that question is much easier to answer than the first: J is just a modification of the considerably older letter I, and probably first emerged as a means of signalling the last figure in a row of Roman numerals—so 18 might once have been written “xviij”, 28 as “xxviij”, and so on. And because lower-case i had a dot, so did lower-case j(Shameless plug: there’s more on that in our new book.) 


Roman numerals: XI and they know it

Eventually J was used enough in written language to warrant its own place in the alphabet and ultimately to earn its own distinct sound—more often than not, in English at least, the voiced palato-alveolar affricate, /dʒ/, the j sound in words like jump, judge and janitor. But the fact that I and J were historically intertwined was enough for dictionaries as recently as the eighteenth century to continue lumping their I-words and J-words together. And it’s also the reason why Indiana Jones misspells “Jehovah” in The Last Crusade. What a film that was. Is it too late to make Marcus Brody the official mascot of HaggardHawks? It is? But we digress. 


So. If j has a dot because i has a dot, how did i get its dot?


Well, when distinct lower-case letters first began to appear more than 1000 years ago, they were typically just smaller, slightly simplified versions of their upper-case equivalents. This meant that lower-case i originally didn’t have a dot above it, because upper case I didn’t have one either. Instead, it was just a single, small vertical stroke: ı


This wouldn’t ordinarily have been a problem, except at the time a great deal of written language was still being written in Latin—and because of that, an unexpected snag began to emerge. 


Take a Latin word like foci, the plural of focus. Spell that with a dotless ı and it’s still perfectly legible, focı. But take a word like genii, the plural of genius—or for that matter radii, the plural of radius (or, according to Toyota at least, Prii, the plural of Prius). Change their two consecutive i’s to dotless ı and you’re left with genıı. Still legible? Well, maybe so in a nice, tidy, computer-generated typeface, but try to imagine it in handwritten cursive script, something along the lines of:

genıı

Suddenly these two ı’s become almost indistinguishable from a lower-case u:

genu

(which has the unfortunate added consequence of being the Latin word for “knee”, not the Latin word for “intelligent people”.) Ultimately, Latin scholars faced a problem: the ii combination, which turns up fairly frequently in Latin vocabulary, could easily be misinterpreted in these newly-emerging lower-case letters. So to ensure that their texts were legible, something had to be done—and that’s where the tittle came in.

Not long after the Norman Conquest, writers and scholars began adding tiny dots or strokes above lower-case i (and hence lower-case j) to show, without doubt, that it was a separate character, independent from those around it. Eventually this simple and ingenious solution became standard practice, and, like all the best solutions, has remained in place ever since. 



3 comments:
  1. This is so stupid. To understand why you use dots in letters you have to step out of your self-centered egotistic world where English is the main language. All latin languages use dots and lines on top of letters for pronunciation. English is so lame and simple that has no need for this. It is a one neuron language. You are welcome!

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    1. But English *doesn't* use dots or diacritics, thats the whole point. the tittle has nothing to do with pronunciation, so where did it come from that's what being talked about here

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    2. Learn some fucking manners "Anonymous". And while you're at it, why not try actually reading blog posts before you comment on them? That way you might understand, as Clare H does, just how painfully and humiliatingly mistaken you are. You are welcome!

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