Was Julius Caesar originally spelled with and I before "J" was invented? Or was it spelled some other way? If so, how?

I'm curious.

  • @jknappen please post this answer as an answer. – WiccanKarnak Feb 14 '18 at 17:28
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    What part of this is about incorrectness? – user6726 Feb 15 '18 at 2:38
  • I hadn't even noticed the question's title involved incorrectness. There is nothing particularly "incorrect" about the current spelling — certainly not when it's used in English, but not really when it's used to transcribe Latin, either, since there are a number of conventions used when transcribing Latin that don't really have a one-to-one correspondence with the way classical Latin was written in its time (and the conventions used in "its time", in turn, changed with the specific time). This is just one of them. – LjL Feb 16 '18 at 16:53

As others stated, on monumental inscriptions, the name of Julius Caesar would look similar to


However, saying it was "spelled with an I instead of a J" may be misleading, because 'J' as a later innovation did not arise from thin air: while 'I' and 'J' were not distinguished in Roman times, they existed as graphically distinct variants of the same letter, which always looked more like 'I' in capitals, but could sometimes look more like a (dotless) 'ȷ' in everyday cursive script.

The distinction was originally just a matter of natural variation within people's handwriting, but in time, a habit tended to form where the first and/or last letters in a word may come to stand out more, resulting in 'ȷ' being used more often than 'ı' in those contexts, just like a better-defined 'v' would stand out more than a more fluidly-written 'u'. I think this pattern can be observed in a few of the Vindolanda tablets for example. I consider it somewhat natural for the first bit of handwriting to be written more carefully or incisively than what follows.

In the case of 'ȷ' (often called the equivalent of "long I" in several modern languages), the distinction may also have been influenced by the standardized classical Roman habit of writing a longer 'I' to indicate that it was a long vowel, something they routinely did in inscription too, and which was unique to 'I' as the same indication was given for other vowel letters by writing an apex above them, at least when useful to reduce ambiguity. This use, in any case, is distinct from the specific shape and use that 'J' later evolved into.

Another letter that often underwent shape/length changes depending on position in Roman cursive was 's', and this distinction also survived into modern times as the long ſ, this time used within words whereas 's' would be used at the extremities. Since this also appears in Caesar's name in both word positions, we can reconstruct the way his name would typically have been written in Roman cursive by approximating it, at least in concept, with the modern lowercase form

ȷulıus caeſar

Perhaps because words that begin with 'I' or 'V' in Latin are statistically more likely to use those as the semivowels /j/ and /w/, rather that the vowels /i/ and /u/ which are more common in the middle of words, eventually — but well after Roman times, and partly after the Middle Ages — 'J' and 'V' established themselves as semivocalic forms, while 'I' and 'U' remained for the vowels, and since the informal cursive distinction in "glyph length" became systematized as swashes in printing, this was no longer just restricted to handwriting.

In the meanwhile, the phoneme /w/ had since long mutated into /β/ or /v/ in Latin and its successors, so 'V' is rarely used as a semivowel in today's languages that employ the Latin script, instead representing [v] or related fricatives or approximants. In some languages, /j/ stopped being a semivowel too, becoming [ʒ] in French for instance. So, the way 'V' and 'J' are used today varies with languages, and additionally, Germanic languages that still had a separate semivocalic /w/ created a convention of using a double 'U' or 'V' (which were not yet generally distinguished at that stage) to reduce the ambiguity with both /u/ and /v/.

A tangentially related point is the origin of the dot on both 'i' and 'j' in modern non-capital scripts: this can be traced back to the apex diacritic mentioned above, which eventually became the acute accent used in many modern languages to mark either word stress or vowel quality resulting from ancestral length distinction, although some languages still use it to mark length. Because 'ı' and 'ȷ' were thin letters which often caused confusion (especially with 'm' when they were next to 'n') in minuscule handwriting, the apex or acute accent, then known as a tittle, started being systematically used regardless of length, quality or stress, merely to make those letters stand out as separate from the adjoining ones.

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  • "while 'I' and 'J' were not distinguished in Roman times, they existed as graphically distinct variants of the same letter" Hmm, is this what led to the way J is used in many language today, like Spanish? – iammax Feb 15 '18 at 21:24
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    If you mean modern Romance languages in general, I covered that in my answer: it came to represent /j/ which then developed into other things in some languages, like [ʒ] in French... in Spanish, I think it also became something like [ʒ] but then devoiced into [ʃ], also written <x> in the historical orthography (which you can still witness in American Spanish words where the same <x> was used to transcribe the sound in native names, like in today's "México"); later, that [ʃ] sound became [x] (or some variant, /x/ anyway) and the spelling mainly settled on <j>. I haven't double-checked this. – LjL Feb 16 '18 at 1:35

It was spelled IVLIVS CAESAR originally (lowercase letters weren't there yet, and also U was not yet differentiated from V).

For the development of the Latin script, see these questions on [latin.se]:

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  • “Capital” form letters were used in Roman inscriptions on stone, but Roman handwriting was often cursive, wasn’t it? – ewawe Feb 14 '18 at 17:50
  • Yes, it was, and we have specimen of the antique cursive writing as well. The point is that they didn't mix inscription style letters and cursive letters in one word, as do do nowadays. – jk - Reinstate Monica Feb 15 '18 at 10:53
  • I think it might be more accurate, rather than saying "lowercase letters weren't there yet", to say something like "Roman writing did not have a case distinction", because before the development of the distinction there weren't really any "uppercase letters" either--even though the Roman inscriptional capitals are the source of most modern uppercase letter forms. – ewawe Feb 16 '18 at 22:39

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