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 a mark added to a letter that is meant 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 inclusion of a tittle over the capital /I/ represents the “close front unrounded vowel” sound while the absence of a tittle over the lowercase /i/ represents a “close back unrounded vowel” sound.
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.”
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