The invention of spaces between words

In more than one entry I’ve commented on the reluctance of the German courts to include spaces in a keystroke count. One reason given was that spaces have no meaning.

Colin of Blogalization , in a comment to one of these entries, gave a link to a review of Paul Saenger’s book Space between Words. The review mentions the shapes of words, and also the Latin scripta continua.

bq. The scripta continua of the ancient Roman world, that is writing letter after letter without spaces, which is also what children tend to do, certainly did not make for easy comprehension. … What Saenger refer to as the aerated manuscript–spaces between letters that do not correspond to units of meaning, could scarcely be considered progress toward easier comprehension.

bq. The inscriptions by 7th-century Irish monks at Jouarre … have interpuncts between words, clearly an attempt to reduce ambiguity of meaning. In a culture where (unlike in Italy, southern France, and Spain) Latin was truly a foreign language the addition of spaces and points for clarity occurred in a general movement to improve comprehension.

Saenger argues that spaces between words, silent reading, and ease of comprehension all happened at roughly the same time. The monks may have used spaces after seeing Syriac manuscripts, he says in the interview mentioned below.

I found an interview with Saenger, in which he says that writing without spaces was the natural representation of speech, which has no audible spaces, and that languages that exist only in oral form have no word for ‘word’.

2 thoughts on “The invention of spaces between words

  1. A couple of absurd bits of speculation, driven by a severe coffee deficit in this house:
    1) Is there a corresponding, earlier change in the visual representation of tangibles like hunters and hunted? Are unspaced words – a flow of everything occurring within a single human breath – an echo of the clouds of undifferentiated horsemen in pre-Greek art?
    2) In pre-literate societies, speechlessness was often interpreted as soullessness – no distinction was made between language and speech – and those without speech (like Zachariah in Luke) were often assumed to be cursed. Does the introduction of spacing, then, reflect a society that is increasingly driven by empirical as opposed to theological considerations, by words rather than The Word?
    3) Are the German courts run by prehistoric barbarians?

  2. A fascinating interview (from Jill Kitson’s Lingua Franca radio show, to which I clearly should be paying more attention) with Paul Saenger, author of Space between Words: the Origins of Silent Reading (Palo Alto, Stanford University Press, 1997) (revi…

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