To write in order to read

There was a time when writing did not exist. Then there was a time when writing took over, shaping culture and human consciousness in fundamental ways. There was also a time when writing was just a tenant in a prevalently oral bubble. That tenancy still exists in some places on the planet, but it is no longer as widespread as it once was.

During its tenancy, writing was a support for speech. Literacy was there to enhance elements of orality. Writing enabled reading, and reading meant reading aloud, because speech was everything. Hearing, as scholars put it, had it over sight: ‘sight isolates, sound incorporates’. Hard to imagine – which is to see. You get the point.

Reading aloud, viva voce, in a live voice, was seen as alive, breathed and aired out, as opposed to writing, which was the suppression or death of speech. ‘The letter kills but the spirit’, or pumped-out air, ‘gives life’.

The subordination of sight to hearing and of writing to speech had far-reaching consequences on the practice of writing. Two writing conventions, in particular, make this phenomenon clear: Continuous script and punctuation by phrasing.






is subordinated to speech.

The text above has been typed using continuous script and punctuation by phrasing. For a historical example, see yesterday’s post on our Manuscriptorium.

Continuous script is also known as scriptio continua. Punctuation by phrasing is a rough translation of the technical term per cola et commata.

Continuous script means that words are not space-separated. This practice certainly seems odd to anyone living in a purely literate culture, but it makes sense if you’re reading the text out loud – or if you’re a cool philologist. Ancient Greek and Roman manuscripts were always written like this. It’s handy in speech and it saves space. The practice falls out of use around the 7th and 8th centuries AD. Space-separated words first appear in the British Isles, believe it or not.

Punctuation by phrasing or per cola et commata was reportedly invented by St Jerome and it’s a writing practice that privileges reading comprehension. The text lines are divided by clause (cola, the plural of the Greek colon, like the semi-colon in punctuation) and phrase units (commata, the plural of comma, meaning a clause in a sentence, the original use of the comma in punctuation). This practice has survived in the way text is sometimes displayed on a television prompter – another oral environment.

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