CAPS Unlock – the history behind uppercase & lowercase letters

CAPS Unlock – the history behind uppercase & lowercase letters


When the alphabet first popped up in the Mediterranean,
it was a single scratchy list of letters. But now European alphabets have not one but two symbols for each letter: one big uppercase, and one little lowercase. So, I hear you ask. Why the extra complications?
How did this resizing happen? Gaze at these sternly romantic Latin and Greek
inscriptions, with their textured words that sink shallowly into their crumbling slabs. They
look like epitaphs for an ancient civilization. But narrow your aesthetic focus and look only
at the letters. What do you notice? Capital letters. It’s all capital letters! Big,
imposing, monumental capital letters. Even when they took up softer media, writing
on papyrus and parchment, the Greeks and Romans penned their words with these big letters,
this majuscule script. Centuries worth of all-caps rage. But the rise and reign of Christendom
brought with it the ascent of the book. And books meant scribes with ink flowing from
their pens. The large, sharp angles of older scripts gave way to smaller, rounder, fluid
forms. In the late 700’s, Charlemagne invited the scholar Alcuin of York to his court, and
this man shaped up the king’s scribes, developing and teaching what we know as Carolingian minuscule,
the most celebrated early Latin minuscule or lowercase script. Around the same time, Greek writers came up with their own running
cursive hand full of smaller minuscule letters, too. Byzantine Greek had a particularly strong
minuscule tradition, which dominated its manuscripts for a thousand years. Latin and Greek weren’t traveling alone
here. Greek brothers Cyril and Methodius tweaked their alphabet to make it suitable for Old Bulgarian in the
800s, and so they gave birth to the Cyrillic alphabet. Now Cyrillic never developed the kind of very
distinct lowercase forms found in Latin and Greek manuscripts, but eventually it did distinguish
smaller and larger letter types. At this point in our story, notice that uppercase
scripts and lowercase scripts are different scripts. We’re not really mixing majuscules
with minuscules. So, when did the modern mixing start? Bicameral scripts – ones that treat upper
and lowercase as variants of the same letter – were still on the horizon. You can get hints of this system in old writings, like those larger capital decorated initials that adorn medieval manuscripts. But bicameral uppercase plus lowercase became
the standard when languages written with alphabets settled on employing minuscule for most text
but using the majuscule letters to signal important information: a big letter at the
beginning of a sentence, a big letter at the beginning of a proper name, or even the start of every single noun. These have all been standards in the history of English, and the last one still is for German. But not all bicameral siblings agree: should you capitalize the name of a foreign language
or not? Can capitals fall in the middle of words? Should you even capitalize the first
letter of every sentence? Should you write some things entirely in capitals? Bicameral scripts don’t have a monopoly
on different forms for a single letter. Maybe we’ll save the details for another day, because I always like doing these comparative asides, but think about Syriac, and, later – but very similar to Syriac – Arabic. These cursive
scripts don’t have capital letters, but each of their letters have up to four
distinct shapes: initial when the letter connects to the start of other letters, medial when
it connects between two letters, final when the letter’s connected to the end of other
letters, and isolated when it’s all alone. There’s even a cool acronym for these: they’re
IMFI scripts. And while sometimes the difference between I-M-F-I forms is pretty small, in scripts that are as maniacally cursive as Syriac and Arabic, it’s very important. So maybe bicameral and IMFI scripts are both part of a broader phenomenon: how a single letter can have multiple standard variants within a script but still be the same letter in the same script. It’s interesting to think about. It’s a good question – thanks for asking it – but now that we’ve tackled the uppercase and lowercase letter variants, and now that the word bicameral rolls off your tongue and makes
you sound even smarter than you already were, I want to move onto another story of Latin
letter variants. It’s a tale of ancient and medieval letter modding. Modders!

25 thoughts on “CAPS Unlock – the history behind uppercase & lowercase letters

  1. The Phœnician abjad was derived from the earlier and widely spread hlhm .
    Cyril and Methodius designed the Glagolitic script for the Prince of Moravia, the Bulgarians revised it to conform to the Greek.

  2. When I hand-set type in 7th grade shop class (1962-63), I remember that the capital letters were in the upper cases and the regular letters were in the lower cases that were more easily and more often used. Hence the names: uppercase and lowercase!

  3. yeah imaging someone who's not using caps he might confuse you a bit because you wouldhave a hard time to guess when the sentence ends and where it starts but then again who cares however i don't like when someone is typing without using a point at the end of a phrase or is using no caps so i like that you are still reading this nonsense i just wrote what a courage you must have but this is just an example how it would be like without caps to use How did I ended up here?

  4. You got Slavonic right!! It's old Bulgarian!! Very good. When we chant the Eastern Orthodox Liturgy in "Church Slavonic", we are really speaking ancient Bulgarian. Outside of Bulgaria the Orthodox call it Slavonic, but inside Bulgaria, we just call it … "Old Bulgarian". I've been to Bulgaria to visit family (in-laws) and I study modern Bulgarian so I can communicate with them. Listening to church Slavonic is easier for a Bulgarian than say, a Russian. I compare it to listening to Shakespeare in Old English. It's intelligible, but takes time to get used to older forms of words that are out of use. The pronunciation is phonetic, and Bulgarian has a lot of Greek and Latin words since Bulgaria (Thrace) was part of the Roman Empire. It gives us a strong indication how old Latin and Greek were pronounced.

    In Sophia, it is not uncommon to find archeological ruins of ancient Latin churches and inscriptions only blocks away from Cyrillic ruins of similar antiquity, but slightly younger. It shows that the two systems were probably in use for a brief period of time towards the end of the Roman Empire and the Rise of the Bulgarian empire.

    Excellent video! Thank you for your work.

  5. oKAy, wELl WhAt aBOuT tHIs PhENoMeNOn ThEn? is this so called "meme" another Major Moments in The History of Writing??

  6. So i have a question I hope someone Will be able to answer, I've been wondering about it for years:
    Some letters are very different in their capital, minuscule and cursive forms. In most cases that is explained (such as Aa Bb Dd Rr..)
    However that's not always the case:
    First the Gg has multiple forms, including the weirdish form seen in most fonts. Both forms are kind of hard to explain, as I'm not sure about the intermediary forms (as there are also the insular g and the yogh letter)
    Second, the lowercase n is strange: its traits are mirrored comparéd to the capital.
    Third, while Wikipedia explains the existence of the lowercase r, there is also a cursive square-shaped r which is very different from Any other form.
    Could anyone explain to me the évolution of these three letters? Please, that's important, I've wondering since I was like 6 or so

  7. Lower and mixed case makes reading easier at the limit of resolution or focus. Words have a distinct shape with tails sticking out at the top or bottom. I can often guess a word in English or other Latin-based language knowing the context. All capitals or Cyrillic script is harder to read when an unresolvable word becomes a solid bar. The Cyrillic italic/cursive is better, apart from the fact that some borrowed Latin letters substitute for entirely different ones (g -> d, u -> i, m -> t)

  8. In computer science we have the next cases for naming variables in code that use 2+ words.
    camelCase (first word goes all lower case, everyOtherWordGoesWithFirstLetterCapitalized)
    PascalCase (AllWordsStartWithCapital)
    spear-case or kebab-case (lowercase separated by dash)
    snake_case (lowercase separated by low dash)

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