Log in

No account? Create an account
capital letters - brad's life — LiveJournal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Brad Fitzpatrick

[ website | bradfitz.com ]
[ userinfo | livejournal userinfo ]
[ archive | journal archive ]

capital letters [May. 23rd, 2007|05:05 pm]
Brad Fitzpatrick
the curiosity fairy just paid me a visit, interrupting my post-gin-and-tonic nap, forcing me off the couch to ask why the hell there are capital letters. the best wikipedia has for me is because it was easier to chisel?

i'm not satisified.

[User Picture]From: natalianyc
2007-05-24 12:56 am (UTC)
Я знаю только, что греки изобрели эту систему, которая чрезвычайно удобна.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2007-05-24 01:03 am (UTC)
well, to me, capital letters are for emphasis:
-start of a sentence
-a proper name
-3rd one you got to use your thinking cap because you're a coder
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: endquote
2007-05-24 01:32 am (UTC)
If capital letters came first, wouldn't the question be "why are there lower case letters?"

"The lower case (minuscule) letters developed in the Middle Ages from New Roman Cursive, first as the uncial script, and later as minuscule script. The old capital Roman letters were retained for formal inscriptions and for emphasis in written documents."

Though that doesn't answer why. My guess is some king somewhere just wanted everyone else's name to look smaller than his.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: brentdax
2007-05-24 01:44 am (UTC)
The same reason Perl has sigils--they mark certain important words, like proper nouns and the beginnings of sentences.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: brad
2007-05-24 03:06 am (UTC)
That doesn't answer the question of why, addressing history.

Rather, you just answered, "What do we use capital letters for today?"
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: jwz
2007-05-24 02:03 am (UTC)
That is a great fuckin' question!

They're really two distinct alphabets, interleaved. It's weird.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: jojobear99
2007-05-24 02:05 am (UTC)

I don't know if this is accurate or not but...

according to http://www.citrinitas.com/history_of_viscom/alphabet.html :

The alphabet used by the Romans consisted only of capital (upper case or majuscule) letters. The lower case (minuscule) letters developed in the Middle Ages from cursive writing, first as the uncial script, and later as minuscule script. The old Roman letters were retained for formal inscriptions and for emphasis in written documents. The languages that use the Latin alphabet generally use capital letters to begin paragraphs and sentences and for proper nouns.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: avatraxiom
2007-05-24 02:30 am (UTC)
Here you go:


I first looked it up in my first-edition Encylopaedia Britannica (a very cool thing), and it said that the Greeks had a language composed only of capital letters. Although they didn't use the word capital, they used the word "majuscule." So I Googled that word and some others, and eventually it led me to the link above.

(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: avatraxiom
2007-05-24 02:32 am (UTC)

Even Better

And this discussion of various scripts is even better. (The section "Roman scripts" has the answer.)

(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: wetzel
2007-05-24 02:42 am (UTC)
I was always under the impression that capital letters came first in their evolution from cuneiform (in particular with greek which predates latin) and that lower case was invented later as a means of writing more quickly and squeezing more letters onto a small piece of paper.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2007-05-24 02:46 am (UTC)

wrong question

The real question is : why are there lower case letters?

I postulate that Upper case is the original and normal set of letters and that the lower case came after. But why?
(Reply) (Thread)
From: jzedd
2007-05-24 02:57 am (UTC)
At least in German they make sure capital letters do something neat, like indicate Nouns.

On that note, I better get to sleep, I have the German AP tomorrow! Gah.

If you have never seen this, its worth a read. An essay by Twain on German.

(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: track_max
2007-05-24 03:07 am (UTC)
maybe, ancient romans invented theirs capital letters to make carvers life easier, but upper case was created to produce more headache to developers of encoding.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: flipzagging
2007-05-24 03:29 am (UTC)
The old old Latin letters were derived from the Greeks, who got them from the Phoenicians. The usual method of writing was a stylus, scratching on a malleable surface like clay that is then fired, wax tablets for temporary stuff (the ancient whiteboard) or even a wooden board for something more permanent. Paper was not unknown but it was a fancy expensive thing from Egypt. This is about 700 BCE.

Anyway, the natural way to write on such a surface is to scratch out straight lines. Same thing for monumental inscriptions, as you noted. That's where you get the original Latin alphabet, which looked like ALL CAPS.

When paper and ink become common, we get cursive forms. The grandaddy of the lowercase we know, which became truly separate from the Roman style of lettering, is Carolingian Miniscule, in medieval times.

So, the real question is, why do we bother mixing up the two? There are lots of examples from medieval times where the scribes never bother to use a capital letter, they just use a bigger version of the lowercase letter.

Now I'm just guessing, but I think it was to honor the text. In many traditions, the old-school Roman letters were used to mark new paragraphs, and sometimes new sentences. But it seems clear that it could have gone either way. We could easily have had an English where there were no capital letters at all.

(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: kuteluvr
2007-05-24 03:49 am (UTC)
I'm surprised no one has gone for the heart of the issue:
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: xb95
2007-05-24 04:00 am (UTC)
What boggled my mind the other day: why, if languages are so different (i.e. in the case of Icelandic and English), do they have the same alphabet (for the most part)?

Turns out the answer is because the Catholics gave it to them when they brought religion. You have to learn to talk to the heathens somehow, might as well teach them to write using your own alphabet.

Obvious in retrospect, but I found it pretty fascinating.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: ydna
2007-05-24 04:24 am (UTC)
(Reply) (Thread)
From: smin
2007-05-24 06:53 am (UTC)
Why don't we have capital numbers?
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: pne
2007-05-24 08:44 am (UTC)
But you do.

At least, in most fonts the numbers are capital-sized (from the baseline to the top).

The question is, perhaps, why we don't use lower-case numbers (aka "old-style figures"; see, for example, Microsoft's "Georgia" font, which uses them). They used to be in more common use but seem to have gone out of style.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: anilnaik
2007-05-24 04:46 pm (UTC)
i appreciate the lack of capital letters in your post.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: whitaker
2007-05-25 05:42 am (UTC)
But do you know why capital letters are called "upper case" ?
(Reply) (Thread)