Scriptio continua

Scriptio continua (Latin for "continuous script"), also known as scriptura continua or scripta continua, is a style of writing without spaces, or other marks between the words or sentences. The form also lacks punctuation, diacritics, or distinguished letter case. In the West, the oldest Greek and Latin inscriptions used word dividers to separate words in sentences; however, Classical Greek and late Classical Latin both employed scriptio continua as the norm.[1][2]

Although scriptio continua is evidenced in most Classic Greek and Classic Latin manuscripts, different writing styles are depicted in documents that date back even further. Classical Latin did often use the interpunct, especially in monuments and inscriptions.

The earliest texts in Classical Greek that used the Greek alphabet, as opposed to Linear B, were formatted in a constant string of capital letters from right to left. Later, this evolved to “boustrophedon,” which included lines written in alternating directions. It was only later on that the Romans adapted the Etruscan alphabet to write Latin and, in the process, switched from using points to divide words to the Greek practice of scriptio continua.[3]

Before (and after) the advent of the codex (book), Latin and Greek script was written on scrolls by enslaved scribes. The role of the scribe was to simply record everything he or she heard, in order to create documentation. Because speech is continuous there was no need to add spaces. Typically, the reader of the text was a trained performer, who would have already memorized the content and breaks of the script. During these reading performances, the scroll acted as a cue sheet, and therefore did not require in-depth reading.

While the lack of word parsing forced the reader to distinguish elements of the script without a visual aid, it also presented him with more freedom to interpret the text. The reader had the liberty to insert pauses and dictate tone, making the act of reading a significantly more subjective activity than it is today. However, the lack of spacing also led to some ambiguity because a minor discrepancy in word parsing could give the text a different meaning. For example, a phrase written in scriptio continua as collectamexiliopubem may be interpreted as collectam ex Ilio pubem, meaning "a people gathered from Troy", or collectam exilio pubem, "a people gathered for exile". Thus, readers had to be much more cognizant of the context to which the text referred.[4]

Over time, the current system of rapid silent reading for information replaced the older, slower, and more dramatic performance based reading,[5] and word dividers and punctuation became more beneficial to text.[6] Though paleographers disagree about the chronological decline of scriptio continua throughout the world, it is generally accepted that the addition of spaces first appeared in Irish and Anglo-Saxon Bibles and Gospels from the seventh and eighth centuries.[7]:21 Subsequently, an increasing number of European texts adopted conventional spacing, and within the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, all European texts were written with word separation.[7]:120-121

When word separation became the standard system, it was seen as a simplification of Roman culture because it undermined the metric and rhythmic fluency generated through scriptio continua. In contrast, paleographers today identify the extinction of scriptio continua as a critical factor in augmenting the widespread absorption of knowledge in the Pre-Modern Era. By saving the reader the taxing process of interpreting pauses and breaks, the inclusion of spaces enables the brain to comprehend written text more rapidly. Furthermore, the brain has a greater capacity to profoundly synthesize text and commit a greater portion of information to memory.[7]:16-17

Scriptio continua is still in use in Thai script, other Southeast Asian abugidas: (Burmese, Khmer, Javanese, Balinese, Sundanese script), Lao, and in languages that use Chinese characters (Chinese and Japanese). However, modern vernacular Chinese differentiates itself from ancient scriptio continua through its use of punctuation, although this method of separation was borrowed from the West only about a century ago. Before this, the only forms of punctuation found in Chinese writings were marks to denote quotes, proper nouns, and emphasis. Modern Tibetic languages also employ a form of scriptio continua; while they punctuate syllables, they do not use spacing between units of meaning.

Latin text in scriptio continua with typical capital letters, taken from Cicero's De finibus bonorum et malorum:

With ancient Latin punctuation is:


Greek text in scriptio continua with typical capital letters, taken from Hesiod's Theogony:

A form of scriptio continua has become common in internet e-mail addresses and domain names where, because the "space" character is invalid, the address for a website for "Example Fake Website" is written as – without spaces between the separate words. However, the "underscore" or "dash" characters are often used as stand-ins for the "space" character when its use would be invalid and their use would not be.

The Chinese did not encounter the problem of incorporating spaces into their text because, unlike most orthographic systems, characters were written by combining a series of letters, so each already represented a word or morpheme.[3] On top of that, Chinese also lacked any form of punctuation until the 20th century as a result of interaction with Western civilizations.[10]

Like Chinese, Japanese implements extensive use of Chinese characters, called kanji in Japanese. However, due to the radical differences between the Chinese and Japanese languages, writing Japanese exclusively in kanji would make it extremely difficult to read.[11] This can be seen in texts that predate the modern kana system, in which Japanese was written entirely in kanji and man'yōgana, the latter of which are characters written solely to indicate a word's pronunciation as opposed to its meaning. For that reason, different syllabary systems called kana were developed to differentiate phonetic graphemes from ideographic ones.

Modern Japanese is typically written using three different types of graphemes, the first being kanji and the latter two being kana systems, the cursive hiragana and the angular katakana. While spaces are not normally used in writing, boundaries between words are often quickly perceived by Japanese speakers since kana are usually visually distinct from kanji. Japanese speakers also know that certain words, morphemes, and parts of speech are typically written using one of the three systems. Kanji is typically used for words of Japanese and Chinese origin as well as content words (i.e. nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs). Hiragana is typically used for native Japanese words, as well as commonly known words, phrases, and particles, as well as inflections of content words like verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Katakana is typically used for loanwords from languages other than Chinese, onomatopoeia, and emphasized words.

Like Chinese, Japanese lacked any sort of punctuation until interaction with Western civilizations became more common. Punctuation was adopted during the Meiji Period.

Modern Thai script, which was said to have been created by King Ram Khamhaeng in 1283, does not contain any spaces between words, but spaces only indicate the clear endings of clauses or sentences.[12]

Below is a sample sentence of Thai written first without spaces between words (with Thai romanization in parentheses), second written in Thai with spaces between words (also with Thai romanization in parentheses), then finally translated into English.

An example of the first line of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Javanese script,[14] and when they are divided (in some modern writings) by spaces and dash sign, which looks different.