Give me some space!

Oct 5, 2010 by

In yesterday’s posting, I mentioned that medieval manuscripts and inscriptions often used a line over the top of an abbreviation or an acronym to mark them as such. This was illustrated with the Kirkdale sundial. Another notable feature of the Old Norse-influenced Old English inscription on the sundial is that words run into each other without spaces in between (and even when a word runs from one line to the next or even from one panel to the next, there is no special marking such as a hyphen to indicate that the word continues elsewhere). So what’s with that? When did English (and other languages) first start to use spaces between words? And do all languages use spaces to mark divisions between words?

As it turns out, spaces are a novel device as far as marking word division goes. First of all, many of the ancient writing systems did not use word dividers because those systems were not intended to represent the way the words and utterances were pronounced. Instead, they relied on picture-like logograms to represent meaning more directly. However, in Ancient Egyptian, special determinatives may have been used as much to demarcate word boundaries as to disambiguate the semantics of words. Other ancient writing systems, such as the Assyrian cuneiform, may have used vertical strokes to separate words. Contemporary logographic writing systems such as Chinese do not use word-separators either.

But word dividers become necessary when the writing switches from the logographic to the alphabetic form. Unlike the earlier logographic writing systems, alphabetic (and earlier related syllabic) systems represent the sounds, not the meaning of words. But how can a reader know when one word ends and another one begins? That’s what word dividers are needed for. For example, one of the earliest alphabetic writing systems, the Ugaritic alphabet, used the word-dividing device developed by the Assyrians — the vertical stroke.

Many other ancient alphabetic writing systems also used some form of word-dividers, typically a vertical line in inscriptions and a single (·), double (:), or triple interpunct (dot) in manuscripts. This practice was found in Phoenician, Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, and continues today with Ethiopic, though there the use of spaces is gaining ground.

Here’s what an example of the Latin interpunct looks like:


And here’s a picture of a text in Ethiopic that shows the use of double interpunct:

Another device that has been used in ancient writing systems to mark divisions between words is having distinct forms to be used at the ends and/or beginnings of words. This form of word-separation is found even in modern Hebrew and Arabic. This device can be used with or without spaces between words. For example, the famous Dead Sea Scrolls were written in the (ancient) Hebrew alphabet, which had different forms for some consonant letters at the end of the word, as well as uses spaces.

Ironically, these early forms of word-dividers were later replaced by the so-called scriptio continua, a system of continuous writing in which all words ran together without separation. For example, the earliest Greek inscriptions used interpuncts, but soon the practice of scriptio continua became common. Similarly, in Classical Latin the interpunct was used, but it died out sometime around the year 200 C.E., as the Greek style of scriptio continua became fashionable.

The reason for this somewhat odd development from (easier to read) systems of interpunct to (harder to read) scriptio continua is that older alphabetic writing systems had symbols only for consonants, so reading was already made more difficult as the reader had to figure out the vowels. Without some form of division between words, reading would have been extremely difficult if not impossible. However, gradually vowel symbols were “invented”, first in the Ugaritic alphabet special symbols are used for vowels word-initially only, then Semitic alphabets start using some consonant symbols to mark vowels to disambiguate difficult-to-read words (these are known as matres lectiones), and finally the Greeks make up special symbols for each and every vowel to be used whenever the vowel is pronounced. This invention of vowel letters makes reading easier so the need to divide words becomes less pressing.

Spaces between words make a comeback only in the 7th century in the writings of Irish monks. Gradually, spaces made their way into the writing systems in France and across Europe. However, even though spaces are used in manuscripts pretty consistently by the 8th or 9th century, inscriptions continue to use scriptio continua until a later date. For example, Beowulf, which dates between the 8th and the early 11th century was written with spaces, while the inscription on the Kirkdale sundial, which dates to the mid 11th century, is written without spaces.

The first page of Beowulf

The Kirkdale sundial

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