The Letters I and J
By Allan Haley
The letters I and J follow each other in the alphabet and look a lot alike. So it comes as no surprise to discover that our ninth and tenth letters started out as the same character.
The Phoenician ancestor to our present I was a sign called “yodh,” meaning “hand.” The original Phoenician symbol evolved over time into a zigzag shape that was eventually adopted by the Greeks. The Greeks often simplified the symbols they borrowed, and the yodh was no exception. As used by the Greeks, the zigzag became a simple vertical line. The Greeks also changed the name of the letter to “iota.”
Iota was the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet and, as such, has come to mean “a very small amount.” The word “jot” also derives (via Latin) from the Greek iota, and usually refers to a small note or mark.
Like the G and F, the letter I took its time deciding which sound it represented. The Phoenicians used it as a semivowel, as the ‘y’ in toy. When the I was adopted by the Greeks around 900 B.C., they used the letter to represent the long ‘ee’ vowel sound. Then, in early Latin, the I represented both the vowel ‘i’ and the semivowel ‘y.’
Eventually, somebody must have grown tired of using one letter to represent two sounds, and so an attempt was made to differentiate them by lengthening the I slightly to represent the semivowel. In the 16th century, a lettering artist decided that merely lengthening the letter was too subtle a change, and added a hook to the bottom of the J.
Both the lowercase I and J have a dot, but there are two competing theories as to which got its dot first. One theory maintains that the J was first, with the dot added during the 13th century in an attempt to further distinguish J from I. The other theory posits that the I was dotted first (also during the 13th century), and that the dot’s purpose was to help distinguish the I from straight-sided characters like the M, N and U when it appeared near these letters in blocks of text copy.
- Allan Haley is Director of Words & Letters at Monotype Imaging. Here he is responsible for strategic planning and creative implementation of just about everything related to typeface designs. He is also responsible for editorial content for the company’s type libraries and Web sites.
- Prior to working for Monotype, Mr. Haley was Principal of Resolution, a consulting firm with expertise in fonts, font technology, type and typographic communication. He was also executive vice president of International Typeface Corporation.
- Mr. Haley is ex officio Chairman of the Board of the Society of Typographic Aficionados, and past President of the New York Type Directors Club. He is highly regarded as an educator and is a frequently requested speaker at national computer and design conferences.
- Mr. Haley is also a prolific writer, with five books on type and graphic communication and hundreds of articles for graphic design publications to his credit.