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In typography and handwriting, a superior letter is a lower-case letter placed above the baseline and made smaller than ordinary script. The style is distinct from superscript. Formerly quite common in abbreviations, the original purpose was to make handwritten abbreviations clearly distinct from normal words. These could also be used to enable the important words on signs to be larger. Technically, it is called a superscripted minuscule letter.
With the coming of printing, pieces of type were cast to enable them to appear in print. These are still commonly used in French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish, though their appearance in English has diminished. Not every letter in the alphabet has a piece of type cast for it as a superior letter. In the book Thinking in Type, by Alex W. White, it is stated that there are only twelve superior letters used in French and Spanish: a, b, d, e, i, l, m, n, o, r, s, and t. In English, however, 'h' is also sometimes rendered as a superior letter, as in 6th.
Use in French
In French, for example, they appear in the abbreviation for "mademoiselle": Mlle. They also appear in abbreviations of titles: Mgr stands for "monseigneur" and Me which stands for "maître", a title given to lawyers and notaries public. Their use in signage is exemplified by a fictitious storefront sign, Messrs Dupond & Dupont, Bandes Dessinées; on a sign, the name "Dupond" could appear nearer the corner, covered by "essrs".
Use in Spanish
In Spanish they are known as letras voladas ("flying letters", in Spain) or voladitas (literally, "little flying" letters), and may or may not be underlined. It is ruled that a full stop must be added right before them, but in order to save space this rule is often ignored. This rule even applies for numbers.
They are used to shorten any kind of word where there is not enough room for the entire one: F.ca de caramelos ("fábrica de caramelos", candy factory), but are more usual with ordinals: 3.er ("tercer", third); titles: D.a ("doña", mistress); personal compound given names F.co Javier (Francisco Javier), M.a Cristina (María Cristina) and regular administrative expressions: f.do ("firmado", signed).
Use in English
The English usage is primarily ordinal numerals (and this usage is not mandatory): 1st, 2nd, and 3rd and 4th; or, in the Chicago style, 2d and 3d. Similar to French usage, Mrs has seen use as well.
In the eighteenth century, they were commonly used to abbreviate typical given names, such as Jos for "Joseph" or Wm for "William." They are still used occasionally.
Masculine and feminine ordinal indicators
Most of the manual and electric typewriters for Spanish and other languages have separated symbols devoted to o and a as a shorthand intended to be used primarily with ordinals: 1.o, 5.a ("primero" and "quinta", first and fifth in Spanish), etc.
In computing, early 8-bit character sets as code page 437 for the original IBM PC (circa 1981) also had these characters. In ISO-8859-1 Latin-1, and later in Unicode, they are assigned to and are known as U+00AA FEMININE ORDINAL INDICATOR (ª) and U+00BA MASCULINE ORDINAL INDICATOR (º). Here, "feminine" and "masculine" has some sense only for a few Romance languages, in which grammatical gender is usually denoted by the suffixes -a and -o, respectively (as in Spanish).
They are used as follows: prima vittoria, Italian for "first victory", can be written 1ª vittoria; secondo tempo, meaning "second time", can be written 2º tempo.
In the most of common available computer fonts today, these characters are not underlined, and they seem merely superscripted a (a) and superscripted o (o, often confused with the degree sign ° due to this fact).
The Numero Sign
One abbreviation using a superior letter has been given its own, single-piece character, combining two characters: the numero sign. Originally, this was just another use of a superior "o", abbreviating numero, the word for "number" in several Romance languages, but it often appeared in English: e.g., № 2 pencil, for "number-two pencil".
N-th power of a number
Both the code page 437 (position 252) and Unicode (U+207F SUPERSCRIPT LATIN SMALL LETTER N) have a character (ⁿ) to represent the n-th power of a number or variable in mathematics, for example 3ⁿ. This superscript usage of the lowercase n is not considered as superior letter at all.
Several superior letters are used in phonetic transcription systems. The International Phonetic Alphabet uses the superscript n ⁿ for nasal release, the superscript w ʷ to indicate labialized or labio-velarized consonants, the superscript h for aspirated consonants, the superscript j ʲ for palatalized consonants, the superscript gamma for velarized consonants, the superscript turned h ᶣ for labio-palatalized consonants, the superscript reversed glottal stop for pharyngealized consonants, the superscript glottal stop is used for glottalized but pulmonic sonorants, such as [mˀ], [lˀ], [wˀ], [aˀ]. Others superscript letters are used as an alternative way to represent double articulated consonants, for example [tˢ] for [t͡s].
- Thinking In Type: The Practical Philosophy Of Typography, p. 41, at Google Books
- Diccionario panhispánico de dudas, Real Academia Española, 2005.