Over the door of the Warwick Hotel in Salthill, Galway, on the west coast of Ireland, sits a very old and unusual typographical mark. Between Beár (bar) and Bialann (restaurant) there is a Tironian et (⁊), Latin for and.
The Tironian et is a remnant of Tiro’s shorthand system, which was popular for centuries but is now almost entirely discontinued. The mark lives on in just a couple of writing systems, one of which is Irish.
Even Irish people who respond to the phrase Tironian et with blank looks are familiar with it from bilingual street signs like this one:
Notice that in Irish the letter i has no tittle, or diacritic dot – it’s just ı – but i is often used for convenience.
I’ve used the Tironian et in my own handwriting, but not habitually. It appears liberally in some Irish books, especially older ones, for example Osborn Bergin’s Stories from Keating’s History of Ireland. The image below is from my paperback copy, but the book is available at the Internet Archive if you want to browse it yourself.
The examples above give the impression that the Tironian et is like a ‘7’ with a low tail and no crossbar, and it often is, but over the course of millennia it has taken quite a range of visual forms. Jan Tschichold’s Formenwandlungen der Et-Zeichen has a page of historical varieties:
Keith Houston’s wonderful Shady Characters delves into the history of the Tironian et (and its cousin the ampersand). He writes that the mark “prospered in the blackletter manuscripts of the Middle Ages” while the rest of Tiro’s system “fared poorly”:
Medieval shorthand in general found itself subject to a curious linguistic witch hunt. The secrecy and cypherlike nature of both traditional runic writing and shorthand did not coexist well with the distrust of witchcraft and magic prevalent in those times, and Tiro’s system was further stigmatized as a result. Briefly revived in the twelfth century, and later inspiring a series of copycat notations in English and other languages, the notae Tironianae were nevertheless a spent force.
This final image shows the Tironian et used in the abbreviation ⁊c., that is, etc., short for et cetera, in a German document from 1768:
So if you’re ever in Ireland, look closely at any Irish text you see in public places, especially official signs. You might spot an unassuming typographical relic that has been preserved here since antiquity.
At first glance I thought it was the Hebrew yod, and wondered what it was there for.
Interesting post. Thanks.
In my head, I can’t help pronouncing “taıspeáin” as “tailspin”. Also, a Romhat sounds like ceremonial headgear. :-)
It’s been a long, long time since I heard anyone use the word “tittle”. Does it have any currency in Ireland?
The Irish font that I have installed does not use “⁊” in place of “&”, sadly.
It should not. Ampersand and Tironian et both mean ‘and’, but they are used in different contexts.
Stuart: They’re similar all right. That hadn’t occurred to me.
Claire; Dan: Glad you enjoyed it.
Adrian: I had to look again at romhat to read it phonetically in English and see what you meant. You’re right, it does! (Irish pron. here.) I don’t think tittle has any more currency in Ireland than anywhere else; I don’t often get a chance to use it in context.
John: The generous sprinkling of Tironian ets in Osborn Bergin’s book reminded me of the use of ampersands throughout Fowler’s original Dictionary.
Some people may vaguely recognise “tittle” from its appearance in the King James Bible (Matthew 5:18), where it translates a term that I believe actually means “serif”. Your linguistic history friends aside, I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone who has encountered it in any other context.
It’s cognate with tilde (note that Spanish til means the acute accent, not the tilde, which has no individual name in Spanish that I know of). The underlying Hebrew word means literally ‘thorn’ but in this case the little projections that differentiate one Hebrew letter from another.
Saved too soon.
The KJV phrase is “not one jot or tittle of the [Jewish] law” where jot is Greek iota, or in the original context, the underlying Hebrew letter yod. Some more recent translations say “not one letter or part/stroke of a letter”, which well renders the intended meaning.
Very interesting, John. I wasn’t aware of these etymological connections.
Loved this. Years ago one of my (Irish) cousins commented on the way I wrote & in longhand, which is a pretty faithful &, the way most Swedes do. She showed me the Irish way and I’ve always noticed since then that Irish handwriters do a sign like the one there third row from the top, third from the left. My sister who went to school in Ireland writes that too. But I never thought of it as anything but a squigglier and flatter &. Very interesting! As is your whole blog, always. :D
Thanks for the post, Stan, and especially for the new (for me) word ‘tittle’ which I plan to use at every opportunity. I had assumed that the tittleless i was a convenience for the signmakers, rather than the other way around – road signs in Irish are not universally known for their scrupulousness, to put it mildly, and may not be the most reliable indicator of, well, reality. Even in the oldest manuscripts the i will often be marked, not necessarily with a dot, but with a hairstroke which identifies it as an i (especially to avoid being mixed up with letters like n or m when written beside it). Books printed in the seanchló usually don’t use the tittle, but I think it’s fairly standard otherwise.
The Tironian et is also preserved as the z in the abbreviation ‘viz.’, I think, where it stands for the et of videlicet. You can see why from some of Tschichold’s variants that you give, which look very like a roman z. The Irish used certain Tironian notes quite extensively in the middle ages and got quite creative with their abbreviations; if there was a stigma around shorthand in the middle ages and early modern period, they didn’t seem to know about it.
In the last example – the German document in blackletter – the Tironian et is represented by an r rotunda. Here, ⁊ and ꝛ are homoglyphs, to use another funny word.
Adrian: I’ve encountered the word tittle a number of times in various contexts, but I don’t remember where; the KJB isn’t one, so I appreciate the pointer.
Bani: Thank you. The first time I saw a Tironian et used was in primary school, but only years later did I examine its real identity and impressive history. It took me by surprise!
Clodagh: Thanks for the interesting note on videlicet; I hadn’t thought about that connection. That’s true about Irish signs, but the convenience is indeed the other way around. Wikipedia’s article on the tittle, which I wouldn’t take on faith but which sounds plausible, says the i:
g2: Thanks for pointing that out. Homoglyph is an excellent word.
Mixed Messages: I’d imagine so – and on old post boxes too.
Great post! ☺
Sure! Great blog! ☺
Reblogged this on Love Of Words and commented:
Sentence First is an amazing blog! Check it out! ☺
By chance, I came across another article on the name and origin of the tittle the other day:
Jamie: Thanks. I guess it was a coincidence.
[…] on the use of the Tironian et (⁊) in Ireland […]
[…] But for an accident of history, this could have replaced the familiar ampersand (&); today, you’re likely to see it in Irish Gaelic and almost nowhere […]
In Spanish we use “y” as conjunction (and). I wonder if its origins can be traced back to the Tironian et symbol shape.
In the Insular Celtic script, the letter i is often written without a dot, but in the roman script used for modern Irish, there is indeed a dot. It’s just left out on road signs to avoid confusion with í, which looks very similar.
Thanks for clarifying.
[…] the Tironian ‘et’ surviving in Irish to this day. Stan Carey’s post demonstrates the fact, and adds a bit of history too. ‘The Tironian ‘et’ (7) in Galway, Ireland’, sentence first blog, […]
[…] The tironian notae may seem an old and obscure subject. Yet they remain in use even today, in Southern Ireland. The nota for “et”, ⁊, looking like a small numeral seven, is in unicode. An Irish blogger, Stan Carey, posted this use on a street sign, as well as other examples in his post, “The Tironian et (⁊) in Galway, Ireland”. […]