Roman Script: The Origins of Our Letters

For 1,000 years before the invention of printing, writes J.J.N. McGurk, handwriting in its various European scripts was a fine art

To whom are we indebted for the particular forms of the letters we write and read today? Our alphabet, of course, we owe to the Romans, who themselves derived it from Greek colonists, who, in their turn, had borrowed it from the Phoenicians. Yet the actual forms of our modern type and script are a legacy of the Middle Ages. For the thousand years before the invention of printing, handwriting was one of the fine arts and, by its nature, among the most conservative. The script, named uncial and halfuncial, used, for example, by St. Jerome in translating the Bible, lasted about five centuries; as, after the barbarian invasions of the West, did the Beneventan script of Southern Italy; while Irish forms lasted even longer. The pointed or Gothic, called ‘Black Letter’ type today, and still employed by the Germans, originated some eight hundred years ago.

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