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Why... do we dot our i's? Minims!

It's just such a given, that you cross your t's and dot your i's- but why?

This is going to take us back to the Middle Ages and back, through the printing press, German and English, and see why a bunch of strange writing habits arose in these languages (and help you if you're learning to read the old German cursive your grandparents' letters are written in).

Let's start with blacklettering- that's the old font the old Bibles were in. Blacklettering can be rough to read,

English Blacklettering
two examples of English blacklettering, via Wiki

(a 1763 printing in London)

(And be it further hereby ena=

cted, That the Mayors, Bai=

liffs, or other head Officers,)

And this is modern machine print blacklettering! When they did it all by hand, it got a lot messier.

In particular, a lot of the letters are composed of minims, and what are minims? In blacklettering, they are letters that look nearly the same, a bunch of short uprights, especially m, n, c, e, i, and if the scribe didn’t connect the uprights clearly, they become indistinguishable. This had consequences for English and German spelling to this day, as we're going to see.

Minimum - no dots
Minimum - no dots

Three minims, ııı, could be read as m, or ui, or iu, or ni, or in. What a mess! Can you decipher the word to the left?

Usually letters like b, p, l, s break up strings of minims, but not always;

This is a bit of doggerel someone came up with that really shows how hard it could be to read, and scribes often crammed letters together to save on expensive parchment:

undotted: mımı numınum nıuıum mınımı munıum nımıum uını munımınum ımmınuı uıuı mınımum uolunt ...aurgh!

dotted: mimi numinum niuium minimi munium nimium uini muniminum imminui uiui minimum uolunt ok, we can at least make out each letter.

(The doggerel reads "the smallest mimes of the gods of snow do not wish at all in their life that the great duty of the defenses of the wine be diminished"). Silly, but not as silly as such a lousy writing system.

As the Middle Ages progressed, people started dotting their i’s, making minim letters much easier to read:

transition to dotting i's

Still, people used other tricks to make it clearer what the letters were (other, alas, than making the letters themselves clearer). The letter y in Roman times has the sound of ü, but by the Dark Ages, its pronunciation had become the same as < i > (namely “ee” or “ih”), and so scribes used it as a different way to write i. The English in particular substituted y for i to make the spelling clearer:

Ponie to Ponies example

Take a word like pony. It would have been spelt ponı, which could be mistaken for pom. Adding an -e helps, ponıe, but not much, now it could be pome (French for apple). Spelling it as pony made the word clear again. The plural, ponies, didn’t bother the scribes enough, ditto lie~lying etc., and so they left us with the y~ie pattern. That's also why we put 'i before e, except after c' - because c was a minim half a millennium ago, when our spelling gelled. ' Conceit'? Better e before i than puzzling what 'conccct' was supposed to be.

Kurrent cursive of umlauted y/ypsilon
courtesy of the German Historical Institute-DC

Some Germans would even put two dots over y’s in the 1800's, so that their y's too would be distinct; here Bettÿ and Ÿacht.

It’s not to be confused with -ii (a Latin ending) or -ij-, a Dutch letter.

The old German cursive, Kurrent (“koorr-RENT”), went one further, and didn’t just dot i’s but added a dip, a breve, over lower case u’s. Lowercase e, n and u all looked nearly the same: two upticks in a row. Two upticks packed together is an e, two spaced apart is an n, and an ’n’ with a bow over it is a u. Unless one or more of the upticks are part of an m or a c

An unrelated abbreviation might trip you up- in German handwriting into the early 1900’s, you could turn a double-m or double-n into a single one with a tilde over it:

Kurrent: Ida soll nun kaum kommen konnen

Ida is supposed to scarcely be able to come.

We see the dips over the two ŭ’s, and the flat line over the m and n. The flatness is a clue that it a double m or n, and not a u.

To this day, handwritten German uses the dip over u's.

In older documents, any n or m not starting a word could be abbreviated this way:

nomia with minims

The second -n- in the Latin word nomina ‘names’ has shrunk into a ~ over the i. If you dig far enough back in genealogy, you might start running into this.

Further fallout from minims was the English habit of using short o for short u when surrounded with minims. In the case of sun vs. son, it came to be used to distinguish two words that were no longer pronounced differently, but you’ll hear how words like love (earlier luv), honey (huney), London (earlier Lunden) are not pronounced with a short o at all, that was just a spelling trick to get around the weakness in the orthography.

Here’s a quick example of some of these things: a young lad in Germany in 1810 wrote the following:

‘Hope nothing and fear nothing on Earth with passion; and you will be happy”

“In memory of our friendship and deep bond. C. Baumgartner from Karlsruhe”

and again with dots and dips and all marked:

Overwriting of minims in modern type

You'll see this in older handwriting, so perhaps in your genealogy research; you see this in English and German to this day. Now you know why we dot our i's. Minims!


P.S. That first image is a lament from William Caxton 1490, the first to set English to the printing press: he told of a man asking for eggs in southmost England, and the innkeep said she understood no French. Well, neither did he! A third person suggested he meant eyren. Eyren was the Old English form (German Eier, Dutch eieren); the Scandinavians had shifted the pronunciation to egg, and the vikings brought that form to northeast England in the 900's.

"Lo, what should a man in these days now write: egges or eyren? Certainly it is hard to please every man because of diversity and change of language."

Caxton quote
that same Caxton quote

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