minimumThe scribbles on the right are not just doodles, a badly drawn rough sea or an attempt by a 5-year-old to emulate grown-ups’ fascinating handwriting. A real adult has written a real word here: minimum.

Even if you had figured that out for yourself, you’ll agree it’s not easily legible. That’s due to a shortcoming in our alphabet: the similarity between hand-written i, n, u and m. In many words confusion is never far away, which is why monks, clerks and other writers have come up with all sorts of clever tricks.

  • First and most obviously: dotting the i’s. That seems self-evident now, proverbial even, like crossing the t’s, but at one point it must have been a brilliant new idea, given that the old Romans didn’t do it (just like the person who wrote minimum, but that was negligence). With capitals, we still don’t, wrongly assuming that there’s no risk of confusion there. I for one think that Io, one of Jupiter’s moons, had better be spelled İo.
  • dominiIn non-classical Latin, the second of two i’s was often given a tail, first in hand-writing, then also in print. This title page of a 18th-century book by one Blasius Altimarus, is a case in point: see the words Blasii, regii and consiliarii. In Dutch, where double i was frequent, ij then proceeded to develop into a separate letter, which explains why the name of the country’s largest lake is spelled IJsselmeer, not Ijsselmeer.
  • In English, the letter combination um was considered troublesome in short words. To fix the problem, writers did what English writers do best: dream up a few more  irregular spellings. Two of these have survived to our day: come and some. Which makes you wonder, why not gome for gum? The answer is that gome was common too, but printers managed to suppress this rather less frequent word in the days when they were trying (with limited success) to clean up English spelling. Should we give it another try now? Better not, perhaps. Turning some into sum would be confusing, as it has acquired a different meaning. Changing the spelling come into cum would be as great an idea as changing pawn shop into porn shop.
  • In Norwegian, m is the only consonant that is not doubled at the end of a word when the preceding vowel is short. I’m not sure if the rule was introduced to prevent confusion, but I’m sure it does.
  • FrakturIn German, the u is often written as ŭ, to emphasise the difference with n. In the pre-war Kurrent type of writing, this stroke above the vowel was compulsory, because there was even less of a difference between u and n than in modern handwriting.
  • When in 1928 Turkish got its own Latin alphabet, a dotless i (ı) was introduced, with a sound value different from the kitchen or garden i. The Alphabet Commission ‘never stopped to ask themselves what the dot was doing there in the first place,’ as the Turkologist Geoffrey Lewis wryly observed. The result of adding another n’ish and u’ish letter was, of course, more confusion. To solve their self-inflicted problem, the commission suggested that the ı be written as ĭ. Turkey’s president Atatürk, the driving force behind the new alphabet, did exactly this, as well as writing ŭ for u, German-style. Nowadays, the habit is obsolete and the Turks just try to live with ı.

There are bound to be other spelling rules and writing habits that somehow originated in the visual similarity of the handwritten i, n, u and m, or perhaps other letters. If you are are aware of any, please let me know!


3 thoughts on “⩗⩗⩗⩗⩗⩗⩗⩗⩗⩗⩗⩗⩗⩗⎞

    • In Cyrillic you can draw a line under ‘sh’ and a line over ‘t’ to help differentiate them. I learnt Russian as a foreign language and always do it – but unfortunately Russians don’t usually bother!


      • Ah, thank you. Now that you mention it, I vaguely remember I used to know that. I tried my hand at cursive Cyrillic years ago, and I’m sure I was taught to draw the lines that you mention.
        I must admit that, similarly, I often do not dot my i’s. On the other hand, my handwriting tends to be printed rather than cursive.


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