This overview of the history of writing (which mostly looks at the distinguishing characteristics of the writing styles of Greek and Latin in the classical and medieval eras) is from 1932, and many of its notions are perhaps a bit outdated. Certainly, Ullman's rah rah sense that the Roman alphabet is the bestest one ever seems based more in his deep familiarity with that alphabet than with any sort of empirical evidence; his hope that all the world will soon turn to the Roman alphabet (especially those stubborn Greeks!) is odd for those of us who appreciate the existence of, say, the strange (to our eyes) and evocative Georgian alphabet.

But Ullman clearly adores the (Roman) alphabet:

1. Early on, the Romans had three letters for what we think of as the /k/ sound -- C, K, and Q. Which you used seems to have depended on what followed it: ka, ce, ci, co, qu. Of course, if those three letters were in fact representing the same consonant (or didn't mark a distinction that mattered to the speakers) then it makes sense that eventually they were smoothed out: Q soon was only used before consonantal U (that is, as it typically is in English: a /kw/ sound, before a vowel), and C was used everywhere else. K basically disappeared, except in a very few well established words, like Kalends, the name of the first day of the month. But:

But when the Roman alphabet was adopted by English and German, k again came into honor. And so we see that letters, like human beings, have their ups and downs.
Even punctuation marks are anthropomorphized:
The question mark is first found in the [eighth] century. At first it looks something like a prostrate S, then it becomes semi-erect, and finally stands upright -- thus portraying the evolution of homo sapiens himself.
Ullman frequently gives human characteristics to letters, punctuation marks, and scripts, not just as a pedagogical tool, I suspect, but because they are vibrantly alive to him.

2. The letter W is a relatively late addition to our alphabet, popping up first in seventh century Anglo-Saxon sources to represent the /w/ consonant we still use it for today. This had been represented by U in Latin (where it meant both the /w/ consonant and the /u/ vowel) but consonental U had migrated to sound like our /v/ (more or less, with regional variation). Then W spreads to Germany (where eventually it represents /v/!) and France (where it remains rare).
To-day it is looked upon as a characteristic letter of English and German, and Italian printers love to introduce it in quoting an English word, whether it is correctly used or not, as if no English word were complete without it.
So W serves as a prototypical mark of an Italian elaboration of English! I wish that there were an example of this reproduced in the book. I love elaborations of things that are "natural" to me -- like foreigners doing American accents.

3. Gothic script reduces a few lowercase letters to one or more of the simplest possible lines: i, n, m, u. Such a line is called a "minim", which is a terrific name, considering. An i (there were no dots on them yet) has one minim, an n or a u has two, and an m has three. So if you see five minims in a row, you have a lot of options: um, nin, uni, etc., etc.

This, as you might imagine, gets annoying. So there's an anecdote from the thirteenth or fourteenth century; the book has the relevant quote in a Gothic typeface (reproduced below), which isn't nearly as unclear as the actual handwritten text would be:
The story tells of a letter sent to the senate at Rome by actors of small stature expressing their unwillingness to give up their function of distributing to the actors the wine obtained from certain vineyards near the walls:

[mimi numinum niuium minimi munium nimium uini muniminum imminui uiui minimum uolunt.]

"The very short mimes of the gods of snow do not at all wish that during their lifetime the very great burden [munium is neuter singular] of (distributing) the wine of the walls to be lightened."
"Written in Gothic," as Ullman notes, "it makes a first-class riddle." (Compare it to this.)


  1. Eccentric Scholar said...

    My heart skipped a beat when I read the quotation about the question mark's posture mirroring human evolution.

    Fascinating essay, Chris, down to the very last minim!  


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