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!

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