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What Is the Dot over the Letter "i" Called?

English writers didn't always put a dot over the letters "i" and "j." Find out when and why they started.

By
Mignon Fogarty,

what is the dot over the letter i called

I’ve long been fascinated by the dot over the letter i, which like the dot over the letter j, is called a tittle. Did you know that we didn’t always have a dot over the letter i in English, or that Turkish has an i with a dot and an i without a dot, or that the dot over the letter i wasn’t always a dot?

The Dot Wasn't Always a Dot

The first mark over the i in English looks like an upside down u or crescent moon. It's from the Gutenberg Bible published in 1455, and in the book where I found most of this information—The History and Technique of Lettering by Alexander Nesbitt—it's put forward as the first example of a mark over the letter i.

The reason those marks started appearing in the first place is that with the Gothic writing of the time, many of the letters had very similar angles and line widths and were written so that they touched each other, making it nearly impossible to tell the difference between the sets of letters im and un when they were next to each other (as you can see in the image above).

As writing styles changed, the upside down u became more like a swoosh or a big accent mark, and eventually in 1514 we are presented with the first example of an actual dot over the letter i. Once it was there, it stayed even though lettering styles changed, and the dot was no longer necessary to tell the difference between combinations of letters.

Turkish Has an "i" with a Dot and an "i" Without a Dot

The Turkish alphabet has two kinds of i—one with a dot and one without—which has caused problems when cell phone keyboards don’t properly distinguish between the two. People believe they are typing one letter but they end up with the other one, which can change the meaning of their message. A recent article on Gizmodo told the story of a man who was murdered after he accidentally sent an insult to someone because his cell phone used the wrong version of the letter i. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but in this case words actually did lead to a killing. All because of that dot over the letter i.

 
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