Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Dots Over Letters i and j.

During a discussion with his grandchildren (Erin Sheehan, 5th grade, and Carter Sheehan, 4th grade), my brother Frank reports that this question came up: why are there dots over the lowercase i and j? The answer comes in steps.


In medieval Latin manuscripts, letters were jammed side by side, and sometimes in very early manuscripts, even the spaces between words were minimal. Many letters began with a long stroke sloping toward the right, so a reader would have to move slowly and carefully to decipher the letters and determine where a new letter began.


In Latin, the letter –i– had two values: it was a vowel with a long E sound (idem, filii, fides) and it was a consonant with a Y sound (iustitia, Iupiter, iam). Since it was the only letter formed with a single stroke, somewhere around the 11th century, scribes began to insert a diacritical mark (a dot) over the letter –i– to show that it was self-contained, not part of the adjoining stroke.


When the letter was snatched into English, it was still both a vowel or a consonant. But after 1600, the vowel was spelled as an –i–, and the consonant was spelled as the slightly changed –j–. Since they had started as one letter, the dot was also retained over the –j–.


SIDEBAR: Words to the Wise received a favorable review in Andrea McDougal’s Word Nerds Rejoice: Top 25 Blogs For Editing Geeks.


Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition


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