I really have to thank Stefanie for mentioning Paul Saenger’s book, Spaces Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading. I have always been interested in the origins of language and writing, and reading a little bit of this book on Google Books has supplied many amazing insights into the development of writing and language. We tend to think of the invention of writing, some 5,000 years ago, as the invention of the tool we use to communicate with each other today. In reality it was something quite different.

At first, alphabets lacked vowels, and so words were written out separately, with spaces between them, to make decoding them easier. However, after vowels were invented, it became much easier to decipher words and sentences, and the spaces were eventually abandoned. This sounds incredible to us, since we know how much faster it is to read with spaces, but there is an explanation, or at least a theory.

For one thing, unless you have been trained to read by sight, spaces do not speed up reading. Give text without spaces to an adult and their reading speed slows to a crawl. Give the same text to a young child and their reading speed is pretty much the same because they haven’t progressed beyond the point of reading by sounding out syllables. Adding spaces does not speed up their reading because they haven’t learned to recognize whole words by their shape. Moreover, according to Saenger, if you give a child text without spaces they will automatically read it aloud. This is exactly how the ancients “read.” Today we might call it recitation instead. One ancient text that points to this quite explicitly is the Quran. It’s first word is “Read,” which is interpreted to mean “Recite,” and indeed the book was first transmitted orally and only later written down.

I think the underlying answer to the question of why we stopped using spaces is that writing was developed more as a mnemonic device for oral recitation than as a way to record thought. Saenger doesn’t say this explicitly, but this is how it seems to me. Ancient texts, especially poetry, are full of complex internal rhythm and rhyme that only make sense aloud. This is the natural outgrowth of oral culture. Books were read much as we used to play cassette tapes: from beginning to end. Separating text into sections or paragraphs and numbering pages were not at all common practices, especially among the Romans. “Reference reading,” that is consulting a book for specific information, was unknown. Writing may seem “digital” to us, but it was “analog” to them—an integral oral performance rather than a collection of individual bits of information.

Ancient languages were inflected, meaning that the function of words was determined by their prefixes and suffixes, not word order. Words could theoretically be placed in any position, and they were often jumbled (in our view) for effect. Typically, the whole sentence had to be read and held in working memory before the relations between the words and the meaning of the sentence could be understood. As it turns out, according to modern experiments, we can retain many more words in our memory if we hear them. It is simply much easier and faster to read inflected language aloud, and as pointed out above, if you are reading phonetically, adding spaces doesn’t make it any easier or faster.

So, how is it that we came to our senses and adopted the style of language we use today? I haven’t gotten to all the details in Saenger’s book yet, but it seems that the breakdown in the system of inflection started in late antiquity. The “vulgar” Latin that Jerome used in his monumental translation of the Bible known as the “Vulgate” was already starting to drop inflection in favour of word order. This was considered degenerate by scholars, who were probably concerned with preserving their high erudition, but in the end, utility trumped artistry. Throughout the middle ages, inflection gave way to word order, and thanks to the monks and scribes of Britain and Ireland, spaces between words were reintroduced.

Now language was written according to the logic of cause and effect—subject-verb-object— not according to the music of rhythm and rhyme. Word order allowed people to decode the syntactical meanings of words on the fly, and so it was no longer necessary to say them aloud to keep them in memory. Finally, spaces between words allowed us to start reading even more quickly by recognizing the shapes of words, and we haven’t looked back since.

The adoption of word spacing and word order was, I think, as revolutionary as the invention of writing itself. They not only made reading possible for the masses, they also (along with punctuation) made the writing and reading of more complex thinking possible, and so scholarship blossomed. The Renaissance was probably only a matter of time after that. Yes, we have lost the music of the high poetic language of the ancient orators and poets, but mass literacy and intellectual progress were obviously worth more to our ancestors. The people have spoken!

To test some of this for yourself, try the exercise on this page from Rice University. The site has other interesting information on the development of language as well.

Virgil: Aeneid


7 comments on “Frompoetrytoprosewithwordspacingandwordorder

  1. Goldberry says:

    This one cannot escape without some comments!
    1- This only applies to Western languages. Arabic doesn't fit in because it has always had spaces. It's written in a cursive script where the letters in a word cannot be separated or joined on to the next word. The short vowels are optional but are not usually written. This script is or was used by unrelated languages like Urdu, Farsi and Turkish. Urdu and Farsi are Indo-European. Chinese doesn't even use a phonetic writing system, and Hindi has a bar over each word with the letters hanging from it. I hope this author didn't generalize beyond Latin-based scripts. Does Greek even fit this pattern?
    2- Did people read aloud so that they could remember the grammatical structure, or simply because reading silently was not part of the culture? The fact that the grammar changed around the same time that reading silently became popular doesn't mean there's a causal connection. There must have been much greater social forces at work to allow the vulgar langauge to become a written language. Also, since reading without spaces is apparently functional, I don't grasp the necessary connection between spaces and reading silently, or spaces and the Renaissance. In fact, it would be only too easy to move from an idea like that to the idea that only phonetic scripts are suitable for education, cultural development, etc., and thus a language like Chinese would not be appropriate because it is too difficult to associate the symbols with the meaning, or a language like Arabic, without written vowels, because it would be too difficult to read. Actually, I read your post title silently without any problem. 😉
    3- Wouldn't the 'logical' order be subject-verb-object?
    4- Why did the monks of Britain and Ireland want to use spaces? Did it come from their own writing traditions?
    5- Why and when did people start reading silently?
    I'll have to find this book to see if he answers these questions.
    This is such an interesting topic. As a matter of fact I'm planning to write a paper on Arabic as an oral language (some aspect of this anyhow) for my Master's paper (Master's in Arabic) this semester. There's definitely not enough information or interest in oral cultures and traditions and how they relate to writing. If you're interested though, there's a journal called 'Oral Tradition Journal' which publishes articles on the topic.
    FYI, the idea that the Qur'an was not written down for a long time, although obvious from the historical record, is controversial for Muslims because many of them, if not all, look on the writing down of the Qur'an by Muhammad, who is said to have been illiterate, as the greatest miracle proving the truth of the faith. It is true that the Qur'an was at first passed on orally, then was written down in several versions which reflected different regional styles, and finally a single written version was officially mandated (by the government) and everything else was gotten rid of. It was intended to be recited anyhow, and it is still a mark of distinction to memorize the entire Qur'an. There are several styles of reciting the Qur'an with musical intonation, which is very beautiful. If only the Bible were short enough to memorize!

  2. Stefanie says:

    I am so glad you are enjoying the book Sylvia! It is really interesting stuff and I wish I had been able to stick with it longer but I wasn't up for the work. That is a cool website you found and the pop up “tests” are neat examples.

  3. Carol A says:

    I don't think the order of an inflected language would have seemed strange to those using it – in fact if you read a lot of Latin it does start to make sense. Probably more likely that when being used by bi-lingual people the word order would get mangled a little because of confusion with another language. You can often hear this with people whose first language is quite different to English.
    Little dots between the words were used before word spaces, I suppose it was just a natural progression.
    Very pleased to find this site, obviously written by someone with similar interests! I am also interested in the history of philosophy and the later Roman empire (Byzantine history). Another book geek!

  4. Sylvia says:

    Thanks for all the questions, Goldberry! I can't answer all of them, but I'm sure the book can address most of them. This is not a popular book, it is long and scholarly—apparently it has a huge bibliography. Thanks for pointing out the subject-verb-object thing—that was a mistake, which I will now fix.
    Staenger does address non-Western languages (and non-Roman script), but there was already enough in the post so I left all that out. I am mostly interested in the Western tradition anyway. He does point out something interesting about Japanese education. They believe that learning logographs is too difficult for small children, so they start off teaching them syllabic symbols that they can sound out, and only gradually introduce logographs later on. As beneficial as it is to exercise the memory and right brain, I think the experience of the West has been that the less work it is to read and write the better. We can thank degenerate medievals and spaced out monks for that. 😉
    Sounds like you're working on an interesting topic. What I gleaned from reading a bit of Saenger is that early writing was not a completely new technology or a break with the past, but simply an extension of oral culture, which we don't really understand any more because writing has become something else since then.
    I just ran out of Google Book pages so I guess I am going to have to get the book!

  5. Sylvia says:

    Thanks again, Stefanie. I guess one woman's book-trash (or more nicely, book-toss) is another woman's book-treasure… 😉
    Thanks for dropping by, Carol! Yes, inflected languages with flexible word order were (and are) by no means impossible to read and write. However it does seem that word spacing and word order put literacy within the reach of people who maybe didn't have the luxury of spending many years training. A small difference in difficulty made a big social difference. And you bring up a good point—perhaps the mixing of cultures during and after the Roman empire had something to do with establishing fixed word order. Something else to investigate…

  6. wil says:

    Very interesting. Those pop-up tests were quite illucidating. Maybe it was just me, but reading the run-together text aloud didn't help much…I was still constantly trying to figure out where one word ended and another began.

  7. Sylvia says:

    No doubt reading phonetically is much easier in Latin (I don't know about Greek or other ancient languages) because of the more regular alternation between consonants and vowels and the regularity of endings. If you come across an “ibus” or “orum” you know you're at the end of a word.

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