While many languages, such as Arabic and Hebrew, add specific accents to the letters or characters throughout their alphabet, the English alphabet has only two letters that include a diacritic dot. This mark is added to a letter to signal a change in either the sound or meaning of a character. What is the additional name of this curious dot that hovers over the ninth and tenth lowercase letters of the English alphabet, and how did it get there?
The small distinguishing mark you see over a lowercase i and a lowercase j is called a tittle – an interesting name that seems like a portmanteau (combination) of “tiny” and “little,” and refers to a small point or stroke in writing and printing. Generally, a diacritic dot such as a tittle is also referred to as a glyph. However, in regards to i and j, the removal of the mark is still likely to be read as I or J; as such, these are not examples of a glyph.
Derived from the Latin word titulus, meaning “inscription, heading,” the tittle initially appeared in Latin manuscripts beginning in the 11th century as a way of individualizing the neighboring letters i and j in the thicket of handwriting. With the introduction of the Roman-style typeface in the late 1400’s, the original large mark was reduced to the small dot we use today.
Many alphabets use a tittle specifically in the case of the letter i. For example, the absence or presence of a tittle over the i in the modern Turkish alphabet, also Latin-based, helps to differentiate two unique letters that represent distinct phonemes.
The phrase “To a T” is believed to be derived from the word tittle and the following passage from Edward Hall’s Chronicles circa 1548: “I then… began to dispute with my selfe, little considerynge that thus my earnest was turned euen to a tittyl not so good as, estamen.”
Now that you’ve satisfied your desire to know the source of that little dot, consider this: Why does the letter Q almost never appear without a U right next to it? Find your answer, here.
What other mysteries of the alphabet would like us to explore? Let us know.