D.E.A.R Time Just Wouldn’t Be the Same

Alright guys. Time for a history lesson.


I promise it’s cool!

Most people assume, if not know, that books haven’t always been books as they are today. First they were clay tablets in the Ancient Near East, then papyrus all over the Roman Empires, then parchment took over in the Middle Ages when colder, wetter climates in the north turned out to be not so hot for how fragile papyrus was.

But it wasn’t just the appearance of books that changed; it was how people read. And a lot of these changes happened during the Middle Ages.

Thankfully, that’s right up my alley.

What if I told you that before the Middle Ages, practically all reading was done out loud? That if you’d passed by a monk hunched over a piece of parchment and muttering to himself he wasn’t crazy but just reading up on his Augustine?

Well first, some context!

The Medieval time period doesn’t have the best reputation. The period is skimmed over as a time of bloodshed and plague. And there was a fair amount of that. But though progress may have temporarily been slowed, there were still a bunch of things that were done in those days that totally became the basis of how we do things today. One of these things is writing. Specifically, how we do it, and how it impacts our reading.

See, the Greeks and Romans (EDIT: As Ilana pointed out below, it was technically the Phoenicians) came up with alphabets and systems of writing, and this was all very clever, but they had this thing where they wouldn’t put spaces between their words. This made it pretty freaking difficult to read, to the point where it’s now widely accepted that they always read out loud, so they could sound out the words and fully understand the meaning of the letters. Some claim they more did this out of the musically of well-written passages, that they liked hearing themselves read, and others say that they read out loud because it’d be otherwise hard to comfortably read and retain things. It’d be too confusing. Especially if you had to read a long text. It gets tiring.

Oh. And did I mention there was no punctuation? Because there was no punctuation.

Here, try it. How comfortably can you read this?

onceuponatimetherewasagirlwhowasprettyandshewassocoolalltheboyslikedherbutsighhertruelovewast oopreoccupiedwithsomeoneelseshewaycoolerthanthatotherchickguysipromisethisisntaboutmeihonestlyj

These things didn’t begin to change until the acceptance of Christianity. Around 300 CE, after becoming legal in the Roman Empire, Christianity became the new vogue religion. People started converting. But because all their lives they’d learned to worship Zeus, Athena, Apollo, and they knew nothing of this new doctrine, they found themselves constantly having to consult the Bible to remember what it said. It was a totally new set of rules and stories.

Not surprisingly, this whole no-spaces-between-words thing made referencing kind of a pain. So they started making distinct headings for easier navigation, which included putting spaces between the words of the first line of the new concept or section. But just the first line.

And as the religion spread north, it became more and more popular and monasteries began to take root. And the more people there were, the more extra copies of the Bible were needed. Monks everywhere began making them.

There was a slight problem, though. Romans spoke, read, and virtually breathed Latin. Insular Christians, who lived in what’s now the UK, most decidedly did not. But since they could only really access the new religion through this other language, they needed to learn it.

Guys, Latin is really hard. Like, really hard. I almost died, learning it. Many a tear was shed come exam time. And I had a big grammar textbook and the bastardized English language to help me. They just had some Bibles and a few translators, and a mother-tongue language that was nothing like Latin. (Here’s a taste of Old English for you.) And you know what didn’t help? Almost everything looked like this:

Latin scriptio continua. Virgil. And this is neat and tidy. I couldn't find an example of the messier, harder to read, half-uncial, abbreviated nightmare people sometimes had to suffer through.

No spaces between the words and no punctuation. And Latin, a language famous for its multitude of case and verb endings essential in making a phrase make sense, was made that much harder. No spaces meant non-Latin speakers were struggling with reading, and where the Romans and Greeks may have chosen to read out loud, (or not, depending on who you ask), the Insular Christians needed to. Needless to say, it got annoying.

So they said screw-all to those traditionalists down south, and began to use spaces between their words.

And just like that, written language was changed forever.

Here’s why. The  old way, witheverythingwrittenlikethis, the letters were independent of each other. It’s only by concentrating and sounding them out that they become words that you associate with real-life things. But the moment spaces were added, the words became a kind of pictograph. As in languages like Chinese, where a symbol represents an object or a concept, these individual word units started visually representing what they stood for. It was no longer just the auditory senses that could understand what was written. You read the word bench’ and you saw a bench, not just letters that spelt out ‘bench’.

It was in the Carolingian Renaissance, around 800 CE with Charlemagne at the head, that using spaces and punctuation became law. He basically said that he didn’t care what script (or font) was used as long as both were present and as long as, for the love of god, people stopped usng abbr fr evrythng just to save space on expensive parchment. But that latter thing is a different story. (Basically, not everybody used the same abbreviations, things became confusing and…yeah, you get the picture.)

And here’s where it gets deliciously conspirational.

With people being able to read internally with ease, suddenly those dangerous political notes or pamphlets about how you want to overthrow the king weren’t so inconveniently damning. No more did people stand around reading assassination plots aloud in the middle of the street only to get arrested because of how stunningly obvious they were being. And sure these examples are extreme, but still, things became more personal. Nobody could walk by, hear what you were reading, and judge you for it.

Most importantly, reading became easier. Way, way easier. And it would contribute to a spike in literacy.

Which, let me tell you, opened up a wide new range of literary possibilities, from the simple joy of reading the latest new romance about knights and maidens to the badassery of sneaking around with banned books, which ranged from heretical scientific texts that would later improve the world, to the base smut and pornography that inevitably came into being.

So let’s all give a nice big thanks to those poor Insulars who didn’t know their Latin. And a great big kiss to Charlemagne, the original badass, and a man I am wildly in love with.

And don’t forget to appreciate the spaces. The brilliantly obvious addition to the written language. Otherwise, you’d have never gotten away with reading books under the table in elementary school.


21 Responses to D.E.A.R Time Just Wouldn’t Be the Same

  1. Julie Feb 3 2012 at 6:52 am #

    Hey Biljana, awesome post! If it weren’t for spaces, mycommentwouldlookthis! 😉 (that was actually difficult to type without spaces!)

    • Biljana Feb 3 2012 at 11:58 am #

      Thanks, Julie! And yeah I had some trouble not automatically putting in spaces as well, haha.

  2. Ilana Feb 3 2012 at 7:37 am #

    Fascinating post! Love it! These things are so interesting.

    One thing. The Greeks and Romans did NOT come up with alphabets and writing systems. They adapted writing systems of previous people. Both the Latin and Greek alphabets grew out of Phoenician, essentially (but it’s more complicated than that). Here’s a table showing the development of the Phoenician alphabet to the various Latin alphabets: http://clubweb.interbaun.com/~mward/gmc/19_lat_alphab.gif Here’s a quick overview of the way alphabets develop: http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/evolalpha.html

    I thought you might be interested since you’re also a history nerd, like me. Other than that, I adored this post. Please do more like it!

    • Biljana Feb 3 2012 at 11:56 am #

      Ooooh sweet, as soon as I get the chance, I’ll edit those links into the post. Thanks!

      And yeah, like you said, it’s a lot more complicated. I mentioned just the Greeks and Romans because they seemed to be the ones that popularized the systems and made them survive, unlike other ones like cuneiform or hieroglyphs. If you’re interested in this kind of thing, also look into things like abbreviations, Roman Caps, Uncial, and Half-Uncial, and there are a bunch of books and articles on how everybody hates Gothic lol.

      Glad you enjoyed it! If you have any suggestions for another post like this let me know and I’ll see what I can do :).

  3. Linda C. Feb 3 2012 at 8:09 am #

    Ah, Latin. I can no longer read it, but I still remember the declensions I learned in high school. Weird.

    • Biljana Feb 3 2012 at 11:57 am #

      Declensions are going to be drilled into my head till I die, I’m sure haha.

  4. Kat Zhang Feb 3 2012 at 3:38 pm #

    Great, informative post, Billy! As someone with a medieval lit class now, I’m really glad we got past all this 😉

    • Biljana Feb 3 2012 at 4:16 pm #

      Lol can you imagine? It’d be so freaking daunting. You have to tell me at some point what you guys are reading, by the way!

  5. Emy Shin Feb 3 2012 at 3:57 pm #

    I adore this post and think everybody should read it post haste!

    Such a fascinating history lesson! I’m so very glad people decided to be rebellious and use spaces. 🙂

    • Biljana Feb 3 2012 at 4:19 pm #

      Thanks! If you think of something historical and literary that you want to know more about, let me know! Hopefully I’ll do some more of these :).

  6. Jen McAndrews Feb 3 2012 at 4:48 pm #

    oh, holy smokes, this is fabulous! I love love love that I learned something new today. At least, I think it’s new. If I forgot ever knowing it, it counts as being new, right? of course right.
    Thanks for the entertaining education!

    • Biljana Feb 4 2012 at 7:21 pm #

      Thanks, and you’re very welcome!! Hopefully more of these will happen from time to time :).

  7. Crystal Schubert Feb 3 2012 at 5:36 pm #

    Hmm… that was really interesting! Thanks! I’m sort of a paper book die-hard, but this does make me sort of wonder about ebooks–are they our word spaces? Will people in the future be like, “Back in the 20th century, readers struggled to read text on pages. Trees everywhere were being murdered, causing the planet to spiral into devastating weather patterns. Then, around the dawn of the 21st century, people got wise and started making the ebooks we know today. As you surely know, all of the trees were replanted, literacy increased a thousand fold, and the world was saved.”

    • Biljana Feb 4 2012 at 7:24 pm #

      Lol I can’t wait to see what they say about us in the future! (Cus I’ll totally be alive, right?) Either way I’m hope it’s that, because that’s hilarious.

  8. Stephanie Allen Feb 3 2012 at 8:57 pm #

    You had me at “Middle Ages.” I’d be okay seeing more posts about them 😉

    I sort of regret never learning Latin. There were definitely times in college I wished I knew it, because I would’ve been able to access so many more sources…

    • Biljana Feb 4 2012 at 7:25 pm #

      Never too late! Just pick up a Wheelock’s Latin textbook and you can probably do a fair amount alone with some dedication. It’s mostly rote memory work at the start.

  9. Adriana Marachlian Feb 4 2012 at 2:39 pm #

    That was SO interesting. I’d always look a the latin texts in the library at my school, and I would hear my Great Text friends reading out loud in a little huddled group, but I never quite understood what was going on lol I feel enlightened now.

    One thing I realized as I was reading, though:

    How people wrote back in the day –> onceuponatimetherewasaprincessfromafarawayland
    How people tweet these days –> #thatawkwardmomentwhen

    D: Twitter is trying to take us back. CLEARLY. 😉

    • Biljana Feb 4 2012 at 7:29 pm #

      LOL do you know, that was EXACTLY what Kat Zhang told me when I asked her if that part was hard to read.

  10. Vahini Feb 5 2012 at 2:35 am #

    I love this post! So interesting to see how it all changed. And I completely agree, Latin is beautiful but learning it nearly killed me and Charlemagne is incredibly badass 🙂

    • Biljana Feb 13 2012 at 6:06 pm #

      A sadly, very under-appreciated badass in today’s society! Thanks, Vee!

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