Scriptio Continua: Ancient Latin Writing Style to Modern Computer Language

Archeologists and historians claim that the early Sumerians in ancient Mesopotamia invented some of the earliest form of writing using wedged shaped characters into small clay tablets known as “cuneiform” as a form of communicating circa 3200 BCE. What they can’t completely prove is if cuneiform influenced a written style of communication one hundred years later among the Egyptian hieroglyphs and Chinese who used pictographs two thousand years later. While Sumerians were developing their written language, the Phoenicians created the first alphabet made up of 22 distinct characters that influenced the way most other ancient civilizations wrote, even though other cultures used forms of drawing pictures to communicate ideas. Roman civilization borrowed a form of alphabet that flourished and even today it has become known as our alphabet in most Western countries.

Numerous cultures in the distant past employed a quirky method of writing called “scriptio continua”, or “scriptura continua”. Both terms are Latin for “continuous script”, or writing without spaces between letters and words in capital letters. Ancient Greeks employed this same script as did the ancient Romans who wrote in all capital letters on parchment or stone monuments. The style also lacked punctuation, accent marks and small letters – none of which had yet been developed. However, the farther back in time we go, the oldest Latin and Greek inscriptions used word dividers, which appeared to be dots called “interpuncta” to separate words in sentences; however, pure scriptio continua without interpuncta thrived primarily in Classical Greek (400 to 500 BCE) and Classical Latin (100 BCE-300 AD) when both empires were at the height of power.

The Romans adopted this writing style from the Etruscans – the previous tribe that inhabited Italy, who lived long before Rome became a dominant world power. In fact, many ancient people communicated in more primitive ways such as pictures. Since the Etruscan alphabet was limited, they used fewer letters which were only capitalized when written. Later, the Romans modified their alphabet with small letters, punctuation and breaks between words, which the Western world recognizes today.

An example In English, written using scriptio continua resembled this: THEHISTORYOFTHEUNITEDSTATESGOESBACKMORETHANFOURCENTURIES which reads, “The history of the United States goes back more than four centuries.” Obviously, this sentence looks cumbersome and somewhat hard to read, but writing in scriptio continua had several advantages. Roman scribes saved expensive ink and papyrus, as well as the stone on which they engraved their language. Also it saved space for more words and extending ideas. The greatest requirement for Roman scribes was to be thoroughly acquainted with their alphabet in capital letters, simplifying the writing process for them.

Eventually, scribes in Europe who copied ancient Latin manuscripts began spacing between words while using small or “minuscule” letters emerged in Ireland in the 7th to 8th centuries A.D. Carolingian period of France in the 9th century A.D. At the same time, German scribes began writing in the same manner. Of course, today, writing in Western civilization followed the same pattern which is a much easier method than writing continually. Also, this new way of copying made reading continuous letter Latin much easier to understand. Europeans were now becoming scholars who read quietly, which is quite different from the ancients who never considered reading for information or pleasure as an art form.

For more than a millennium, most of the Western world stopped using continuous script until computers became popular in the 1980’s, and in the 1990’s the Internet, or the World Wide Web, presented newer and faster ways of communication. But the characters today incorporate a lot more than just capital letters. After all, language has developed since the Romans and today it has become much more complicated.

Continual script is the common denominator between the Latin language and today’s “machine language” When typing passwords, web addresses, email addresses, domain names, using the whole scope of available symbols, such as: big and small Roman letters mixed with Arabic numerals (1,2,3,4 etc.) and symbols which can be accessed using the Shift key commands and number keys. Spaces are not included because in machine language they cause a void or break in memory. For example, a password might look like this: D5v27WfIO. Emails shows a user’s name. A web address might look this way:

Today, we are close to being as dependent on using “scriptio continua” as the ancient Greeks and the Romans. Every day we visit the Internet by turning on our computers and mobile devices which are dependent on a form of continuous script language. In today’s world nobody can communicate without continuous script which is used as codes that allows computers to receive, store, and execute important digital information. So, it seems ironic that one of today’s greatest technologies has been influenced by one of the oldest known patterns of writing in the ancient world.