Scribal abbreviations or ''sigla'' (singular: ''siglum'') are the abbreviations used by ancient and medieval scribes writing in various languages, including Latin, Greek, Old English and Old Norse. In modern manuscript editing (substantive and mechanical) "sigla" are the symbols used to indicate the source manuscript (e.g. variations in text between different such manuscripts) and to identify the copyists of a work. See Critical apparatus.


Abbreviated writing, using ''sigla'', arose partly from the limitations of the workable nature of the materials (stone, metal, parchment, etc.) employed in record-making and partly from their availability. Thus, lapidaries, engravers, and copyists made the most of the available writing space. Scribal abbreviations were infrequent when writing materials were plentiful, but by the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, writing materials were scarce and costly. During the Roman Republic, several abbreviations, known as ''sigla'' (plural of ''siglum'' = symbol or abbreviation), were in common use in inscriptions, and they increased in number during the Roman Empire. Additionally, in this period shorthand entered general usage. The earliest known Western shorthand system was that employed by the Greek historian Xenophon in the memoir of Socrates, and it was called ''notae socratae''. In the late Roman Republic, the Tironian notes were developed possibly by Marcus Tullius Tiro, Cicero's amanuensis, in 63 BC to record information with fewer symbols; Tironian notes include a shorthand/syllabic alphabet notation different from the Latin minuscule hand and square and rustic capital letters. The notation was akin to modern stenographic writing systems. It used symbols for whole words or word roots and grammatical modifier marks, and it could be used to write either whole passages in shorthand or only certain words. In medieval times, the symbols to represent words were widely used; and the initial symbols, as few as 140 according to some sources, were increased to 14,000 by the Carolingians, who used them in conjunction with other abbreviations. However, the alphabet notation had a "murky existence" (C. Burnett), as it was often associated with witchcraft and magic, and it was eventually forgotten. Interest in it was rekindled by the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket in the 12th century and later in the 15th century, when it was rediscovered by Johannes Trithemius, abbot of the Benedictine abbey of Sponheim, in a psalm written entirely in Tironian shorthand and a Ciceronian lexicon, which was discovered in a Benedictine monastery (''notae benenses''). To learn the Tironian note system, scribes required formal schooling in some 4,000 symbols; this later increased to some 5,000 symbols and then to some 13,000 in the medieval period (4th to 15th centuries AD); the meanings of some characters remain uncertain. ''Sigla'' were mostly used in lapidary inscriptions; in some places and historical periods (such as medieval Spain) scribal abbreviations were overused to the extent that some are indecipherable.


The abbreviations were not constant but changed from region to region. Scribal abbreviations increased in usage and reached their height in the Carolingian Renaissance (8th to 10th centuries). The most common abbreviations, called ''notae communes'', were used across most of Europe, but others appeared in certain regions. In legal documents, legal abbreviations, called ''notae juris'', appear but also capricious abbreviations, which scribes manufactured ''ad hoc'' to avoid repeating names and places in a given document. Scribal abbreviations can be found in epigraphy, sacred and legal manuscripts, written in Latin or in a vernacular tongue (but less frequently and with fewer abbreviations), either calligraphically or not. In epigraphy, common abbreviations were comprehended in two observed classes: *The abbreviation of a word to its initial letter; *The abbreviation of a word to its first consecutive letters or to several letters, from throughout the word. Both forms of abbreviation are called "suspensions" (as the scribe suspends the writing of the word). A separate form of abbreviation is by "contraction" and was mostly a Christian usage for sacred words, Nomina Sacra; non-Christian sigla usage usually limited the number of letters the abbreviation comprised and omitted no intermediate letter. One practice was rendering an overused, formulaic phrase only as a siglum: DM for ''Dis Manibus'' ("Dedicated to the Manes"); IHS from the first three letters of "ΙΗΣΟΥΣ"; and RIP for ''requiescat in pace'' ("Rest in Peace") because the long-form written usage of the abbreviated phrase, by itself, was rare. According to Trabe, these abbreviations are not really meant to lighten the burden of the scribe but rather to shroud in reverent obscurity the holiest words of the Christian religion. Another practice was repeating the abbreviation's final consonant a given number of times to indicate a group of as many persons: AVG denoted "Augustus", thus, AVGG denoted "Augusti duo"; however, lapidaries took typographic liberties with that rule, and instead of using COSS to denote "Consulibus duobus", they invented the CCSS form. Still, when occasion required referring to three or four persons, the complex doubling of the final consonant yielded to the simple plural siglum. To that effect, a ''vinculum'' (overbar) above a letter or a letter-set also was so used, becoming a universal medieval typographic usage. Likewise the ''tilde'' (~), an undulated, curved-end line, came into standard late-medieval usage. Besides the ''tilde'' and macron marks, above and below letters, modifying cross-bars and extended strokes were employed as scribal abbreviation marks, mostly for prefixes and verb, noun and adjective suffixes. The ''typographic'' abbreviations should not be confused with the ''phrasal'' abbreviations: ''i.e.'' (''id est'' – "that is"); ''loc. cit.'' (''loco citato'' – "in the passage already cited"); ''viz.'' (''vide licet'' – "namely", "that is to say", "in other words" – formed with "vi" and the ''yogh''-like glyph the siglum for the suffix ''-et'' and the conjunction ''et'') and ''et cetera''. Moreover, besides scribal abbreviations, ancient texts also contained variant typographic characters, including ligatures (e.g. Æ, Œ, etc.), the long s (ſ), and the half r, resembling an Arabic numeral two ("2"). The "u" and "v" characters originated as scribal variants for their respective letters, likewise the "i" and "j" pair. Modern publishers printing Latin-language works replace variant typography and sigla with full-form Latin spellings; the convention of using "u" and "i" for vowels and "v" and "j" for consonants is a late typographic development.

Scribal sigla in modern use

Latin script

Some ancient and medieval sigla are still used in English and other European languages; the Latin ampersand (&) replaces the conjunction ''and'' in English, ''et'' in Latin and French, and ''y'' in Spanish (but its use in Spanish is frowned upon, since the ''y'' is already smaller and easier to write). The Tironian sign ⁊, resembling the digit seven ("7"), represents the conjunction ''et'' and is written only to the x-height; in current Irish language usage, the siglum denotes the conjunction ''agus'' ("and"). Other scribal abbreviations in modern typographic use are the percentage sign (%), from the Italian ''per cento'' ("per hundred"); the permille sign (‰), from the Italian ''per mille'' ("per thousand"); the pound sign (₤, £ and #, all descending from ℔ or lb, ''librum'') and the dollar sign ($), which possibly derives from the Spanish word ''Peso''. The commercial at symbol (@), originally denoting "at the rate/price of", is a ligature derived from the English preposition ''at''; from the 1990s, its use outside commerce became widespread, as part of e-mail addresses. Typographically, the ampersand ("&"), representing the word ''et'', is a space-saving ligature of the letters "e" and "t", its component graphemes. Since the establishment of movable-type printing in the 15th century, founders have created many such ligatures for each set of record type (font) to communicate much information with fewer symbols. Moreover, during the Renaissance (14th to 17th centuries), when Ancient Greek language manuscripts introduced that tongue to Western Europe, its scribal abbreviations were converted to ligatures in imitation of the Latin scribal writing to which readers were accustomed. Later, in the 16th century, when the culture of publishing included Europe's vernacular languages, Graeco-Roman scribal abbreviations disappeared, an ideologic deletion ascribed to the anti-Latinist Protestant Reformation (1517–1648). The common abbreviation "Xmas," for Christmas, is a remnant of an old scribal abbreviation that substituted the Greek letter chi (Χ, resembling Latin X and representing the first letter in the Greek word for Christ, Χριστος) for the word Christ.

Church Slavonic

After the invention of printing, manuscript copying abbreviations continued to be employed in Church Slavonic and are still in use in printed books as well as on icons and inscriptions. Many common long roots and nouns describing sacred persons are abbreviated and written under the special diacritic symbol titlo, as shown in the figure at the right. That corresponds to the Nomina sacra (Latin: "Sacred names") tradition of using contractions for certain frequently-occurring names in Greek ecclesiastical texts. However, sigla for personal nouns are restricted to "good" beings and the same words, when referring to "bad" beings, are spelled out; for example, while "God" in the sense of the one true God is abbreviated as "", "god" referring to "false" gods is spelled out. Likewise, the word for "angel" is generally abbreviated as "", but the word for "angels" is spelled out for "performed by evil angels" in Psalm 77.

Abbreviation types

Adriano Cappelli's ''Lexicon Abbreviaturarum'' lists the various medieval brachigraphic signs found in Vulgar Latin and Italian texts, which originate from the Roman sigla, a symbol to express a word, and Tironian notes. Quite rarely, abbreviations did not carry marks to indicate that an abbreviation has occurred: if they did, they were often copying errors. For example, "e.g." is written with periods, but modern terms, such as "PC", may be written in uppercase. The original manuscripts were not written in a modern sans-serif or serif font but in Roman capitals, rustic, uncial, insular, Carolingian or blackletter styles. For more, refer to Western calligraphy or a beginner's guide. Additionally, the abbreviations employed varied across Europe. In Nordic texts, for instance, two runes were used in text written in the Latin alphabet, which are ᚠ for ''fé'' "cattle, goods" and ᛘ for ''maðr'' "man". Cappelli divides abbreviations into six overlapping categories: *by suspension (''troncamento'') *by contraction (''contrazione'') *with independent meaning (''con significato proprio'') *with relative meaning (''con significato relativo'') *by superscript letters (''per lettere sovrapposte'') *by convention (''segni convenzionali'')


Suspended terms are those of which only the first part is written, and the last part is substituted by a mark, which can be of two types: ; General: indicating there has been an abbreviation but not how. The marks are placed above or across the ascender of the letters. : : The final three of the series are knot-like and are used in papal or regal documents. ; Specific: indicating that a truncation has occurred. : :The third case is a stylistic alternative found in several fonts, here Andron
Unicode chart extended D
. The largest class of suspensions consists of single letters standing in for words that begin with that letter. A dot at the baseline after a capital letter may stand for a title if it is used such as in front of names or a person's name in medieval legal documents. However, not all sigla use the beginning of the word. For plural words, the siglum is often doubled: "F." = ''frater'' and "FF." = ''fratres''. Tripled sigla often stand for three: "DDD" = ''domini tres''. Letters lying on their sides, or mirrored (backwards), often indicate female titles, but a mirrored C, Ↄ, stands generally for ''con'' or ''contra'' (the latter sometimes with a macron above, "Ↄ̄"). To avoid confusion with abbreviations and numerals, the latter are often written with a bar above. In some contexts, however, numbers with a line above indicate that number is to be multiplied by a thousand, and several other abbreviations also have a line above them, such as "ΧΡ" (Greek letters chi+rho) = ''Christus'' or "IHS" = ''Jesus''. Starting in the 8th or the 9th century, single letter sigla grew less common and were replaced by longer, less-ambiguous sigla, with bars above them.


Abbreviations by contraction have one or more middle letters omitted. They were often represented with a general mark of abbreviation (above), such as a line above. They can be divided into two subtypes: ; pure: a pure contraction keeps only the first (one or more) and last (one or more) letters but not intermediate letters. Special cases arise when a contraction keeps only the first and last letter of a word, resulting in a two-letter sigla. ; mixed (impure): a mixed contraction keeps one or more intermediate letters of the word that is abridged.

Marks with independent meaning

Such marks inform the reader of the identity of the missing part of the word without affecting (''independent'' of) the meaning. Some of them may be interpreted as alternative contextual glyphs of their respective letters. *The straight or curved macron above a letter means that an ''n'' or ''m'' is missing. A remnant can be seen in Spanish where an ''n'' with a tilde (ñ) is used for . In Visigoth texts before the 9th century, however, a dot is placed above the macron to indicate ''m'', and the same mark without a dot meant ''n''. The line with a dot became the general mark after the 9th century in Visigoth texts. *A mark, resembling the Arabic numeral ''9'' or a mirrored ''C'' in Gothic texts, is one of the oldest signs and can be found in the texts of Marcus Valerius Probus and Tironian notes with the same meaning as ''con''. *Another mark, similar to a bold comma or a superscript ''9'', placed after the letter on the median line, represented ''us'' or ''os'', generally at the end of the word, being the nominative case affix of the second declension, sometimes ''is'' or simply ''s''. The apostrophe used today originated from various marks in sigla, which caused its current use in elision, such as in the Saxon genitive. *A wave-like or omicron-like mark stands for a missing ''r'' (rhotic consonant) or ''ra''. Sometimes, a similar wave-like mark at the end of a word indicated a missing ''-a'' or syllable ending in ''-a''. This is, however, a coincidence, as one of the marks stems from a small ''r''-like mark and the other from an ''a''-like one. In later texts, it became a diaeresis (two dots), or a broken line. *A mark, resembling the Arabic numeral 2 and placed on the median line after the letter, indicates ''tur'' or ''ur'', which occurs generally at the end of the word. Alternatively it could stand for ''ter'' or ''er'' but not at the end of the word. (Nordic languages, such as Old English, have a lightning-bolt-like mark for words ending in ''er''.) *The r rotunda with a cut generally stood for ''-rum'', but it could also stand for a truncation after the letter ''r''. *A last mark, which could either be the Tironian note ⁊ or the ampersand &, was used with equal frequency as the conjunction ''et'' (and) or as ''et'' in any part of the word. The symbol ⁊ at the end of a word indicates the enclitic ''-que'' (and). A corruption occurs in some manuscripts between it and the ''us''/''os'' mark.

Marks with relative meaning

The meaning of the marks depends on the letter on which they appear. *A macron not fully above the character but crossing the descender or ascender: *: ''b̵'', ''b̄'' – ''bre-'', ''ber-'', ''-ub'' *: ''c̄'' (with a link on the right) – ''cum'', ''con'', ''cen-'' *: ꝯ̄ (above) –''quondam'' *: ''d̵'', ''d̄'' – ''de-'', ''der'', ''-ud'' (a crossed ''d'', not ''ð'' = eth) *: ''h̵'', ''h̄'' – ''haec'', ''hoc'', ''her'' *: ꝉ – ''vel'', ''ul-'', ''-el'' *: ''m̄'' (above) – ''mem-'', ''mun-'' *: ''n̄'' (above) – ''non'', ''nun-'' *: ''ꝋ'' (crossed horizontally, not Danish ''ø'') – ''obiit'' (see: Theta infelix) *: ''p̱'' – ''per'', ''par-'', ''por-'' *: ''p̄'' (above) – ''prae'', ''pre-'' (alternatively, a mark similar to ''-us'' comma above but with a small spiral glyph could be used for this meaning, and it is also valid above the letter ''q'') *: ''p̄p̄'' (above) or ''p̱p̱'' (below) – ''propter'', ''papa'' *: ''q̱'' – ''qui'' and, in Italy, ''que'', but in England ''quam'', ''quia'' *: ''q̄'' above – ''quae'' *: ''q̄q̄'' (above) or ''q̱q̱'' (below) – ''quoque'' *: ''q̱̃'' (tilde above and line below) – ''quam'' *: ''t̵'' – ''ter-'', ''tem-'', ''ten-'' *: ''ū'', ''v̄'' (above) – ''ven-'', ''ver'', ''-vit'' *A dot, two dots, comma and dot (different from a semicolon), and the Arabic numeral 3-like mark ꝫ were generally at the end of a word on the baseline. After ''b'', they mean ''-us'' (semicolon-like and ꝫ also could mean ''-et''). After ''q'', they form the conjunction ''-que'' (meaning "and" but attached to the end of the last word) with semicolon-like and ꝫ the ''q'' could be omitted. Semicolon-like, in Lombard documents, above ''s'' meant ''-sis''. The dot above median line on an ''h'' – ''hoc''. Dot above ''u'' – ''ut'' or ''uti''. The ꝫ could mean ''-est'', or after ''a'', ''e'', ''u'' vowels meant ''-m'' not ''us'' or ''ei'', if after an ''o'' it meant ''-nem''. In certain papers the ꝫ mark can be confused with a cut ''r'' rotunda (handwritten 4-like). **A dot to the left and right of a letter gave the following meanings: ''e'' – ''.e.'' ''est'', ''i'' – ''.i.'' ''id est'', ''n'' – ''.n.'' ''enim'', ''q'' – ''.q.'' ''quasi'', ''s'' – ''.s.'' ''scilicet'', ''t'' – ''.t.'' ''tune'', .ꝯ. – ''quondam'', .⁊. ''etiam''. *A diagonal line, often hooked, mark crossing nearly all the letters gives a different meaning. Commonly a missing ''er'', ''ar'', ''re''. Variants of which were placed above and were ¿-like, tilde (crossing ascender) and similar to the ''us'' mark. These, used in various combinations, allow for various uses giving additional meanings. *2-like mark, after a ''q'' – ''qꝛ'' ''quia''. After 15th century alone ꝛ ''et'' (being similar to ⁊) and alone with line above ꝛ̄ ''etiam''. After ''u'' and ''a'' at the end of a word (''uꝛ'', ''aꝛ'') ''m'', after ''s'' – ''sꝛ'', ''ſꝛ'' ''et'' or ''ed''.

Stacked or superscript letters

A superscript letter generally referred to the letter omitted, but, in some instances, as in the case of vowel letters, it could refer to a missing vowel combined with the letter ''r'', before or after it. It is only in some English dialects that the letter ''r'' before another consonant largely silent and the preceding vowel is "r-coloured". However, ''a'', ''i'', and ''o'' above ''g'' meant ''gͣ'' ''gna'', ''gͥ'' ''gni'' and ''gͦ'' ''gno'' respectively. Although in English, the ''g'' is silent in ''gn'', but in other languages, it is pronounced. Vowel letters above ''q'' meant ''qu'' + vowel: ''qͣ'', ''qͤ'', ''qͥ'', ''qͦ'', ''qͧ''. *''a'' on ''r'': ''rͣ'' – ''regula'' *''o'' on ''m'': ''mͦ'' – ''modo'' Vowels were the most common superscripts, but consonants could be placed above letters without ascenders; the most common were ''c'', e.g. ''nͨ''. A cut ''l'' above an ''n'', ''nᷝ'', meant ''nihil'' for instance.

Convention marks

These marks are nonalphabetic letters carrying a particular meaning. Several of them continue in modern usage, as in the case of monetary symbols. In Unicode, they are referred to as ''letter-like glyphs''. Additionally, several authors are of the view that the Roman numerals themselves were, for example, nothing less than abbreviations of the words for those numbers. Other examples of symbols still in some use are alchemical and zodiac symbols, which were, in any case, employed only in alchemy and astrology texts, which made their appearance beyond that special context rare.


In addition to the signs used to signify abbreviations, medieval manuscripts feature some glyphs that are now uncommon but were not sigla. Many more ligatures were used to reduce the space occupied, a characteristic that is particularly prominent in blackletter scripts. Some letter variants such as r rotunda, long s and uncial or insular variants (Insular G), Claudian letters were in common use, as well as letters derived from other scripts such as Nordic runes: thorn (þ=th) and eth (ð=dh). An illuminated manuscript would feature miniatures, decorated initials or ''littera notabilior'', which later resulted in the bicamerality of the script (case distinction).

Typographic replication

Various typefaces have been designed to allow scribal abbreviations and other archaic glyphs to be replicated in print. They include "record type", which was first developed in the 1770s to publish Domesday Book and was fairly widely used for the publication of medieval records in Britain until the end of the 19th century.

Unicode encoding

In the Unicode Standar
v. 5.1
(4 April 2008), 152 medieval and classical glyphs were given specific locations outside of the Private Use Area. Specifically, they are located in the chart
"Combining Diacritical Marks Supplement"
(26 characters)
"Latin Extended Additional"
(10 characters)
"Supplemental Punctuation"
(15 characters)
"Ancient Symbols"
(12 characters) and especiall
"Latin Extended-D"
(89 characters). These consist in both precomposed characters and modifiers for other characters, called combining diacritical marks (such as writing in LaTeX or usin
in MS Word). Characters are "the smallest components of written language that have semantic value" but glyphs are "the shapes that characters can have when they are rendered or displayed".

Examples of 8th- and 9th-century Latin abbreviations across Europe

File:Notaelatinae 01.jpg File:Notaelatinae 02.jpg File:Notaelatinae00linduoft Page 03.jpg File:Notaelatinae 04.jpg File:Notaelatinae00linduoft Page 05.jpg File:Notaelatinae 06.jpg

See also

*Acronym *Claudian letters *List of acronyms *List of classical abbreviations *List of medieval abbreviations *Macron § Other uses *Monogram *Palaeography *Textspeak – a similar phenomenon in modern text messaging *Typographic ligature *Palaeographic letter variants




* * * *

External links

on medieval abbreviations and other scribal conventions.

for the use of sigla *The abbreviations used in the 1913 edition of Webster's dictionary {{List of writing systems Category:Abbreviations Category:Data compression Category:Latin script Category:Medieval literature Category:Palaeography Category:Scribes Category:Textual scholarship