Word spacing history and trivia?

Jon Parker's picture

Hello Typophiles. I'm working on a typographic piece (for the upcoming Veer catalog) that references the "middle dots" used in Roman inscriptions and such (like on Trajan's column). Can anyone share more information on the history of "delimited text", how it changed from dots to spaces, etc.? or point me in the right direction? Much appreciated.

hrant's picture

It didn't really go "from dots to spaces". Mostly spaces weren't marked at all until Irish scribes invented the practice in the 8th (?) century.

This is actually a rare case where one can recommend a single book that will cover the topic exceptionally well! "Space between words" by Saenger.

hhp

Jon Parker's picture

> It didn't really go "from dots to spaces". Mostly spaces weren't > marked at all until Irish scribes invented the practice in the 8th (?) > century.

Thanks, Hrant. Exactly the kind of information I'm looking for.

I don't think I'll have time to buy/order and get the book in time though... any other tidbits you can share?

Jon Parker's picture

Adding "Saenger" to my Google search led me to this enlightening article:
http://www.abc.net.au/rn/arts/ling/stories/s74438.htm

(Thanks again.)

hrant's picture

Hey, nice link!

You've brought up a question, though: what happened to those dots?

hhp

hrant's picture

I found something. I was going through F Thibaudeau's "La Lettre d'Imprimerie" (an amazing work that people should have told me about before), and on page 72 there's an interesting note about ancient punctuation:

http://www.themicrofoundry.com/other/Thib_72n.gif
http://www.themicrofoundry.com/other/Thib_73n.gif

I don't have time to translate it now, but since you're Canadian maybe I don't need to? Let me know.

BTW, concerning which Aristophanes this is actually about, see:
http://www.typophile.com/forums/messages/30/25291.html

hhp

dux's picture

<font class="dontLookLikeCrap">Excellent link thankyou Jonathon. I'll certainly be seeking a copy of that book now.

The development of scriptura continua to words as individual objects is fascinating. I've never seen those 'mid dots' used in anything other than examples of Roman inscriptions. I refer to them as mid dots as I'm unsure whether they have an established name. We have an overdot, so it seems a reasonable guess.

--

Interesting reading on the asterisk too HHP. I was with you in thinking that it concerned the playwright.</font>

Nick Shinn's picture

The mid-dots are actually a typographic character in the basic latin font, named "periodcentered".

I use it occasionally to separate two all-cap titling words/phrases, on the same line. As an alternative to the vertical bar. Or sometimes in a folio, eg MARCH

hrant's picture

I use middots for phone numbers. In a font with tabular figures it's good to make its set-width half the numerals. Another thing to measure against is the width of the bullet. Plus don't forget that it's used between two "el"s in Catalan.

BTW, for a text face, the middot should ideally be lighter/smaller than the period.

hhp

William Berkson's picture

As I noted on another thread, with visual, the dead sea scrolls (the latest year 135) have word spacing in the Hebrew. And as no change is noted in the literature that I know of, the practice is likely far more ancient.

I read somewhere recently that in Latin, being a highly inflected language, it is easy to spot word endings, by comparison to some other languages - which would explain the lack of spaces to some extent.

All this makes me question how much of the story Saenger really has. I am not a scholar in this area, and I may be wrong, but my scholarly alarm bells went off when I saw this claim.

hrant's picture

To be fair, "invented" seems indeed too strong a term for what the Irish scribes did. But the real point of Saenger's work is basically to show that "immersive reading" of Latin simply didn't exist before the Irish contribution (at least not for a few hundred years, when literacy was a huge luxury anway), and in this I see no problems with his stance.

Hebrew might suffer more from lack of spacing, so this might have indeed accelerated the incorporation of spaces. But Hebrew still suffers from something worse to this day: waaaaay too much homogeny between characters, and too much alignment (like Latin all-caps). A powerful, masculine script with great presence and a unique pedigree... but low readability.

hhp

Nick Shinn's picture

AsAnAlternativeToUsingSpacesOrMiddotsToDifferentitateWords;OneCouldCapitalizeThe InitialLetterOfEveryWord.ThisPresumablyNeverCaughtOnBecauseWordSpacingWasWellEstablishedByTheTimeTheTwo-CaseSystemEmerged.

ItWouldBePossibleToDesignAFontWithASpaceCharacterHavingZeroWidth.OnlyInDigital.

OrPerhapsThe(Space-Capital)CombosCouldBeNegativelyKernedByTheValueOfTheSpaceWidth

hrant's picture

Funny stuff.

You know what's under[-]used? The hyphen. Some words (like "readjust") are crying for a hyphen to eliminate deadly ambiguity.

> ThisPresumablyNeverCaughtOnBecauseWordSpacingWasWellEstablished

Or because it would destroy the information value of capitalization.

> OnlyInDigital

Actually, metal fonts don't come with a space! :-)

hhp

Nick Shinn's picture

Readjust: could use dieresis.

Suggesting continuous text where every word starts with an umlauted character.

hrant's picture

Then H

timd's picture

I don't really understand his point about "immersive reading", certainly until the beginning of the 15th century in England and much of Europe the standard practice of reading a book was to read it aloud for the assembled company, whether clerical or lay.
Tim

hrant's picture

Maybe old habits die hard? But the point is that vocalization and lack of word spaces go hand in hand, as do immersive reading and the presence of word spaces. You can't read very well when you have to sound everything out (even silently), and lack of spaces makes souding out a helpful (in a retarded sort of way) technique.

hhp

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