Sunday, 5 October 2008

Why lower-case letters may have saved civilization

Pierre MacKay, of the University of Washington in Seattle, writes of the revolution in handwriting that occurred in the 800s in this week’s Times Literary Supplement:

‘Not only Latin and Greek, but Arabic as well underwent a profound transformation from majuscule and Coptic hands to minuscule or, as it is tellingly named in Arabic, naskhi (= copyists’) hands, which are less ornamental, but faster to produce, and usually take up less space.

‘The illustration that accompanies the review [in the 26 September 2008 issue of the TLS], of a fourth-century bible, shows majuscule Greek at its best, but a great deal of surviving majuscule is not open and rounded like this example but compressed horizontally to a point of seriously decreased legibility. A well-known inability of later readers to distinguish EIC from EK is one result of this compression. …

‘The two centuries preceding the ninth were not good times for books. War, natural disasters and decay continued their inroads on the majuscule heritage, but copyists were less and less active. The first chapter of Paul Lemerle’s Le Premier Humanisme byzantin paints a gloomy picture of literacy in that time, and things were no better in the Latin West and not much better in the Islamic Caliphate.

‘The invention of the three minuscules (including naskhi) should not be seen as causing the loss of the heritage from late antiquity, but rather as a response across three cultures to the realization that unless the copyists got to work fast, there might be nothing left to copy.’

The illustration,of a Carolingian minuscule from the Grandval Bible, Tours, c 840, is from Nicolete Gray, A history of lettering, p. 68

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