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Latin/Lower-case Latin Script


Hi. I was watching the BBC documentary Mary Beard's Ultimate Rome (14 minutes 20 seconds into the third episode) when she points to an inscription in stone commemorating a man called Vocontius. She says that it's unusual in that it's written in lower case, while inscriptions like that are normally written in capitals, and I found myself wondering what the Latin for 'lower case' was, since the term 'case' refers to the boxes in which loose type were stored after Gutenberg revolusionised printing in Europe.

So I looked at the Wikipedia entry on Latin, where I was surprised to read  the claim that lower case writing was invented in the middle ages.

Can you throw any light on the subject?



The terms that you are looking for are majuscule (majusculum) and minuscule (minusculum).

The statement that minuscule script was "invented" in the Middle Ages is an oversimplification.  A better way to look at the situation is that the majuscule (what we call capital letters, such as you still see on building inscriptions) was gradually modified over time to become minuscule for the practical requirements of rapid writing.  It takes much longer to write majuscule than minuscule.

One can see the same process occurring in ancient Egyptian.  Everyone knows the look of the formal hieroglyphs, which one could analogize with the Latin majuscule (capitals).  But hieroglyphic script is not practical for rapid writing.  Thus were developed first the Egyptian hieratic and then the demotic script, which are cursive.  As early as the late fourth century A.D., we find Latin cursive scripts, which were developed principally by Christian hands into the "uncial" script, a precursor to full minuscule.

The history of Latin writing is a complex one, well synthesized and illustrated in some 200 pages in Berthold Louis Ullman's Ancient Writing and Its Influence (MIT Press, 1969).  Ullman provides several plates in the back of the book as examples of the development of Latin script.  The pictures tell a thousand words.  I highly recommend Ullman's small paperback if you are interested in this topic.


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Ph.D. Cand. in Classical Languages. Conversant with all forms of the language: classical, mediaeval, and modern.


I have 50 years of teaching at all levels of Latin from high school through university postgraduate. I read, write, and speak Latin daily.

American Classical League, American Philological Association

A.B., M.A., Ph.D. Cand. in Classics.

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