scriptio continua

Here is another new HEL Timeline entry for teaching this Spring. I’ll include brief discussions of the history of writing throughout the course, and this will be one of the first. I’ve put this on the year 500, about the time of the inscription on the Coliseum.

The earliest examples of western writing don’t contain breaks between words.

Imaginereadingtextthatislikethisforawholepage orevenfortheentirelengthofabookliketheBibleortheIliad itwouldgetconfusingespeciallybecauseneitherauthorsnoscribesaddedpunctuation modernscholarscallthispracticescriptiocontinuawhichmeanscontinuouswriting

Dedication to Decius Marius Venantius

The image, a dedication in the Roman Coliseum, was written in the late 5th century. Not only aren’t words separated, but upper case and lower case are not distinguished, and there is no punctuation. The transcription below shows that words are also broken up across lines. You can see more of this in the mid-fourth-century manuscript of the Bible in Greek called the Codex Siniaticus. This is called scriptio continua (or scriptura continua), “continuous writing.”

Sometimes scribes would place dots between every word, but not regularly. Sometimes scribes would leave spaces of a greater or lesser length between “sentences”–that is, units of thought–though again, not always. This is what Jerome did, though, in his translation of the Bible (see earlier on the Timeline)–and why we have “verses” in the Bible today. As Mary Carruthers has shown (see the references below), breaks were also created to aid in memory: each unit is short enough to contain an easily memorizable amount of data that could be cued to a book with chapter and verse numbers for memorial recall.

Dedication to Decius Marius Venantius - transcription

Why, in any event, would anyone write this way? The reason is because there was little perceived difference between written and spoken language. Text–somewhat like modern musical notation–existed as a promptbook for oral performance. It was perceived to be transparent, just a cue for speech. Abbreviations were also therefore used heavily, as this transcription shows, and this continues even through the early stages of print (see the transcriptions of the early Bible translations later on the Timeline for examples). Language was written to be read aloud–even when alone–and speech is actually a pretty continuous stream of sound. The concept of word separation is driven deeply into linguistic perception in a textual culture, but this is a learned perception, not a natural given. Young children, as parents know, must learn to differentiate among sounds, and then to connect these sounds to individual letters and words; see the discussion starting here in Edward Finegan’s introductory linguistics text for more about all of this. It takes more time for larger syntactic distinctions to be made, and this difficult work continues through adulthood, as teachers who work to re-punctuate “sentence boundary errors”–run-ons and fragments–know. This is the hard work of training a literate mind.

When punctuation does appear, there is little evidence that it originated with the author. It could have been scribal, but punctuation seems to be most often entered by readers preparing a text to be read. To inflect a sentence as, for instance, interrogative, or declarative, or a quotation, readers had to attend closely to grammar and meter. A text would be prepared by practicing to enunciate its parts to accurately reflect meaning, as an actor does, and readers used marks as cues to help. Over time, these marks become conventional, and standards of punctuation develop.

Scriptio continua starts to wane–that is, scribes and writers, and not just readers, start to add spacing, punctuation, capitalization, and so on–when text comes to be perceived graphically rather than orally. That is, they start to perceive that word on the page has a life of its own, separate from the spoken word, and that it can create meaning in unique ways distinct from spoken language. Think, at the other extreme, of how writers such as e.e. cummings (as in this poem, or this one) exploit punctuation, spacing, and capitalization to create meaning in ways not perceptible in speech. This perception develops slowly, starting in Europe in about the 6th century. Adding these textual features at composition or copying becomes fairly common within two or three centuries, but isn’t consistent until about the 12th.

See: Bernhard Bischoff, Latin Palaeography, trans. Dáibhí Ó Cróinín & David Ganz (Cambridge UP, 1990) esp. 169-73; Malcolm Parkes, Pause and Effect (Berkeley: U of California P, 1993) esp. 9-19; Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory, 2nd ed. (Cambridge UP, 1990) 99-106; Crystal, CEL 95-96, 214-15.


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