The Ninth and Tenth Letters — I & J

Historically these two letters are the same, both coming from the Phoenician symbol, yodh, meaning hand bent at the wrist. Over time this hand symbol became stylized into a simple zig-zag, and the Greeks in their usual practice turned it into a vertical straight line, and yodh became iota. Yodh was the smallest symbol of the Phoenician and was still the smallest in the Greek, and so the word iota has come to mean something very small. The term jot has the same root. The Phoenicians used it to represent the sound of ‘y’ in toy, but the Greeks used it to represent the ‘ee’ sound. By the time the Romans adopted it the sound was now the vowel ‘i’ or the consonant ‘j’. And that was it, but here is the one example of a letter developed in almost modern times. During the 15th century it became the fashion to lengthen the ‘i’ to help differentiate the consonant sound from the vowel sound. While this was a step in the right direction, further development added the loop on the bottom, so by the 1500’s the acceptance of the modern ‘J’ was complete.

About the dots, one theory is that the ‘J’ got its dot first, and while that helped distinguish it from ‘i’, it was found that the letter ‘i’ was sometimes lost when viewed in such words as ‘win’ or ‘minute. So, the dot appeared on the ‘i’ and the hook was added to the ‘j’.


The ‘I is just “I”. It isn’t difficult to draw, and has no optical considerations or caveats to contend with. Draw a straight vertical line the width of a standard stroke and season with serifs when necessary. That’s pretty much it.

The hook of the ‘J’ should extend just slightly below the base line (for optical reasons) or very far below the line, which allows it to be spaced more evenly with other characters—and provides a little more distinction or drama to the basic shape. The end of the hook can be terminated with either a serif or a ball terminal. The ball terminal is a privilege of the ‘J’. In a classical Roman alphabet (to which the ‘J’ does not belong) it can be used on no other letter.

With credit to Allen Haley,
Upper & Lower Case magazine, a typographic centered publication last published from 1970 to 1999.

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