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What is the History of English Capitalization?
December 27, 2005 9:41 AM   Subscribe

What is the History of English Language Capitalization?

I have been Interested for some time in the Capitalization used in Older English Texts - I think of the style as fading into the "Modern" System sometime in the 1800s, but have No Idea if that is Accurate. Many "Improper" Nouns and even some Verbs are Capitalized, but it often Appears as though there is little System to it all but Individual Aesthetic. Is that the case? If not, what is the Underlying Method? When and Why did it change?

As a fairly representative Example, this Text (via Mefi).
posted by freebird to Writing & Language (34 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
Well, You See, Freebird, what Happened is This:

The People who continued to Use Silly-assed Capitalization were all Ostracised and, Indeed, Beaten to a Bloodied Pulp by the Angered Masses.

Also, it is much easier to read all-lowercase. It "fits" the eye's line-scanning better.

Do you remember the primary-school exercise where you identified words by their "block shape" -- you draw a line around the word and when you remove the letters, the shape of the blocky outline still gives you enough information to recognise "dog" from "rug."

Capital letters destroy that: "Dog" and "Rug" look the same, forcing the reader to rescan the word to differentiate the letters.

Regardless the history of the change, you want to take serious consideration of your Most Annoying Habit if you wish to actually have people read your communications to us. The more difficult you make it to read what you write, the more you will find yourself being ignored.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:51 AM on December 27, 2005


I disagree that it scans more easily - I think it's a Question of what you're Accustomed To, and find your dog/rug example Preposterous - but I hardly think this is the Place for that Discussion, and Think the question is Valid however you may Feel about my New Comment Style. Please only post Answers here, you know that's what it's for. I post this as I Flag your Comment only in the Hope of preventing Further Unpleasantness. Let's stick with the History Question, shall we?
posted by freebird at 9:58 AM on December 27, 2005


I thought this would be more straightforward to answer, myself. I found this wikipedia page on the use of the Majuscule (capital) letters - it mentions that the Latin alphabet was originally all in Majuscule but doesn't explain the development of our current usage. I am hoping someone with more expertise or better searching skills can weigh in, this is a curious question and my googling was for Naught.
posted by pants at 10:04 AM on December 27, 2005


All this time I thought that certain words were capitalized to give them added Emphasis.

I've seen this happening with modern writing online, too; assumed it was a function of people not fully understanding the rule about proper nouns.

I'd love to see an answer to this.
posted by cmyk at 10:09 AM on December 27, 2005


The Capitalisation of Nouns (closest modern parallel, German) faded away between the Middle and End of the Eighteenth Century. The Reason was primarily Æsthetic, as Writers and Printers moved away from Heavy Typography towards a more Italianate Model. There were also Œconomic Advantages, since it generally made Typesetting easier.

The heaviest Stiles of Typography are usually associated with low-status or popular Publications -- the Equivalent of today's Tabloids, with their shouty sans-serif Headlines. That fits with your cited Text -- the anti-coffee Pamphlet mentioned in Harper's this Month, which is fairly Shouty even by Restoration Standards.

By Contrast, high-status Writers (and their Printers) tended to favour lighter Typographical Stiles, especially going into the Augustan Age. (Alexander Pope is a good Example One who 'lightened' the Typography of his Books over the Course of his Career, particularly in Editions meant for Persons of Quality; David Foxon's Pope and the Early Eighteenth-Century Book Trade is the canonical Work on this Topic.)

The Change didn't occur at once, by some top-down Decree, but happened over a long period of Time, and according to Fashion. Regular Nouns go from Capitalised to lower-case; emphasised Nouns go from Italicised-capitalised to italicised or roman lower-case, depending on House Stile. Certain proper Nouns go from SMALL CAPS to Capitalised.

If you are going to imitate the Stile, you need to understand that there is, indeed, a System behind it.

But you just fucking shouldn't, okay. Because you can't. And it's stupid. Read Pynchon's Mason and Dixon instead.
posted by holgate at 10:14 AM on December 27, 2005 [3 favorites]


If you can read french, I like the French Version of the wikipedia article, as it gives a bit more information. If not, here is the automatically Translated Version.
posted by blue_beetle at 10:16 AM on December 27, 2005


My understanding has always been that all those capital letters were inherited from German (where all nouns are still capitalized) but, as holgate points out, fell from favor with the advent of printing because it made setting type more expensive and time-consuming.
posted by jjg at 10:20 AM on December 27, 2005


After that, I think I should summarise for those with eyestrain.

Foxon's book on Pope and the book trade is a must-read for anyone wanting to understand the social dynamics of c-18 typography. Pope adored the look and feel of Italian books. So as he achieved greater control over the look and feel of his printed works, he decided to introduce Italianate typography, mainly for the octavo editions that were sold to high-status readers. The 'pulp' duodecimos kept much of the 'pointing' of heavy typography. Foxon's argument is that high-status readers: a) didn't need all the shouty typography; b) considered it beneath them.

The precedent encouraged other authors to ask for lighter typography, and other printers to imitate Pope's books. So between, say, 1730 and 1790, the shouty stuff more or less faded out of use. If you look at a copy of Lyrical Ballads, it's pretty much gone.
posted by holgate at 10:23 AM on December 27, 2005


Next up! The origin of the names "roman" and "italic" for roman and italic text—both Italianate, though one more specific than the other, in distinction to older, more Germanic styles.

Someone once told me it had to do with Popery!
posted by kenko at 10:40 AM on December 27, 2005


I believe it was in an introduction to an edition of the Lewis & Clark diaries that I read that there was simply no rhyme or reason to English spelling or capitalization prior to the 19th century, which is why the intrepid Explorers varied their spelling and capitalization randomly (or so it seems). I expect Noah Webster with his dictionary work starting in the first third of the 19th century started working toward standardization.
posted by lhauser at 10:43 AM on December 27, 2005


Great Answer holgate! You mention a Relation to the cost of printing, which I'd have thought to be Lessening Independently over time as the Technical Process improved. I would have guessed that as the Printed Word became available to a Wider Class of People, the typographical fashion would become More, rather than Less, pitched to the Low-Status Reader. This seems to be the Pattern we see today in the Media today - are there Sociological Factors (besides the already-mentioned Cost) which would cause this "Race to the Top" of the Typographic Landscape that might be relevent Today?

That is - unless the reasons are all purely Economic, you suggest a movement in Popular Culture of the day away from the "Shouty" and "Low". It seems to me that most modern media is moving the Other Direction, and I wonder if this bit of Typographical History provides any lessons pertaining to these larger societal tides?

I lay a good part of the Blame for my Current Typographic Interest on "Mason and Dixon" and to a Lesser Extent "The Sot-Weed Factor", so I don't think that will Help my Condition. I'm certain it will pass, I have no Intention to Annoy nor Egotistickal Agendum.
posted by freebird at 10:43 AM on December 27, 2005


That is - unless the reasons are all purely Economic, you suggest a movement in Popular Culture of the day away from the "Shouty" and "Low".

In short, yes. With an expanding middle-class, 'refinement' was the order of the day. You might think it a stretch, but the Italianate style of typography accompanied the Palladian style in architecture: smooth lines, airiness, etc.

What I ought to mention is that Pope was devoted to creating editions for high-status readers, as opposed to high status collectors. He authorised lavish folio subscription editions that were destined to gather dust in aristocratic libraries, but spent most time on the octavos: editions that he would use himself, and which were marketed as products, as opposed to being paid for in advance.

If you look at the Dunlap Broadside of the Declaration of Independence, you see a kind of transitional typography: capitalisation of nouns, a smattering of letter-spaced small-caps for emphasis, but very little use of italics apart from the 'Signed by' line, which is copy-book stuff. The engrossed manuscript, on the other hand, uses lower-case for nouns and very little embellishment.
posted by holgate at 10:58 AM on December 27, 2005 [1 favorite]


So can we Assume that Handwritten English, parallel to and predating the Trends in Printing so well addressed by holgate, was Capitalized Wildly, then came to Adopt the conventions emerging from the world of the Printed Word? Thus far we've only addressed Typesetting.
posted by freebird at 11:32 AM on December 27, 2005


pants: Our modern lowercase letters are derived from a handwritten lettering style called "Uncial", as opposed to the engraved, monumental style of uppercase letters. This is an instance of the letterform being adapted to the tool: uncials, which are more flowing, are better adapted to the quill, and straight-legged capitals are better adapted to the chisel.

At some point the uncial letters became formalized into the miniscules we use today. Obviously it's not as straightforward as that, but it's generally correct. Check out this introduction to the evolution of letterforms.
posted by adamrice at 12:24 PM on December 27, 2005


Yes, handwriting followed print trends, more or less: contemporary manuscripts make that clear. But there are social dynamics there as well: an author might follow different rules when preparing a manuscript for publication, as opposed to writing a private letter to a peer.

I believe it was in an introduction to an edition of the Lewis & Clark diaries that I read that there was simply no rhyme or reason to English spelling or capitalization prior to the 19th century, which is why the intrepid Explorers varied their spelling and capitalization randomly (or so it seems).

That's something of a gloss. If you focus on a particular period, rather than a grand sweep of pre-19th-c writing, then you can certainly identify rules-of-thumb. Personal writings are always going to be 'rougher', and the fantastic inconsistency of Lewis & Clark's journals owes more to the authors and the circumstances of their journey than to prevailing rules (or the lack thereof).

Btw, as I said, if you're going to sustain the conceit, at least do it properly, i.e. 'came to adopt the Conventions emerging from the World of the Printed Word'. Or, better, don't do it at all.

Last cites: Addison's Spectator no. 409. (Text here, though you'll need a plugin.) And this survey of sources on 'taste', which refers to Addison's thoughts on 'polite Writing'.
posted by holgate at 12:37 PM on December 27, 2005


Oops, that last URL.
posted by holgate at 12:37 PM on December 27, 2005


This is an interesting question; as so often, I wish people who didn't actually have an answer would refrain from contributing guesses. The original question has been well answered by holgate, so I'll respond to kenko's followup:

The origin of the names "roman" and "italic" for roman and italic text


The former is so called because the first such typeface was developed near Rome (at Subiaco, by Sweynheym and Pannartz); the latter is based on "the form of handwriting developed in Italy, and now used in Great Britain, America, the Latin countries, and other countries of Western Europe, which approaches in form to italic printing: opposed to the Gothic hand, formerly used in England and still in Germany, etc." (in the words of the OED). The first italic type was cut in 1501 and was entirely lower-case (the first italic upper-case letters were cut in the 1520s), and at first it was entirely separate from roman (entire books were set in it)—only much later did it come to be seen as a form of emphasis to be used with text in roman.

My understanding has always been that all those capital letters were inherited from German

Your understanding is wrong. What, you think when we started printing English we said "I know, let's borrow a bunch of capital letters from some guys over in Munich?"
posted by languagehat at 12:59 PM on December 27, 2005


do it properly, i.e. 'came to adopt the Conventions emerging from the World of the Printed Word'

Hmm - but that's more "correct" only if you're capitalizing all nouns, isn't it? Isn't there a period (as seen in the Women's Petition and elsewhere) where only some regular nouns are capitalized, essentially as a matter of emphasis? In which case, how is your version more correct than mine, other than as a differing opinion on the proper emphasis?

The question is sincere, BTW, as I'm really enjoying your answers. I hope this is evidenced by my dropping of the conceit for this discussion, as it really seems to bother you in particular. The vehemence of some people's reponse has provided me with a really interesting insight on the perspective of people who capitalize *nothing* around here, an approach I tend to feel about the way some of you feel about my Little Experiment.
posted by freebird at 1:33 PM on December 27, 2005


In which case, how is your version more correct than mine, other than as a differing opinion on the proper emphasis?

Oh, I understand your contention. My point is this: if you're going to carry off a modern imitation, you have to embrace a certain grammatical rigour and historical integrity -- even if that rigour wasn't universally observed at the time. Pynchon carries it off, by bracketing his narrative in the America of 1786: the second page tells you when and where and who.

It's breathtaking. As someone immersed in the period, I have a sense of just how hard it is to write in that mode. It's not simply a matter of scattering capitals: it's about knowing the weight of words at a particular period in time. (By analogy: compare a machine-translation and an expertly-done one.) Neal Stephenson was asked about this in relation to the Baroque Cycle, and (though I can't find the interview) talked about how he felt it impossible to sustain a decent imitation of 17th-c 'intellectual' English.

In contrast, the practice of not using caps is a contemporary one, like it or not.
posted by holgate at 2:41 PM on December 27, 2005


My vote is "Not!" :)

So, and I think this is close enough to the original question to not be a derail, "Mason and Dixon" is in fact considered historically accurate - anachronistic jokes aside - in its capitalization and general language? I should have guessed that, but thought he was perhaps playing it a little fast-and-loose.

My intent was not really to truly imitate. I just plain like the capitalization-as-emphasis, wanted to do it because I enjoy it, and was curious what it would be like to try with modern language. From what you're saying then, wouldn't the most "accurate" way to approach this be to use modern "weightings" in deciding what to capitalize?

posted by freebird at 3:09 PM on December 27, 2005


M&D is slightly tricksy, but the prose style is exacting and disciplined.

On the general point, consider it the difference between wearing a frock-coat and hose on the street just because you like frock-coats, and wearing a frock-coat because you're a paid historical re-enactor or at a costume party. One also runs into the problem of sounding like a Winnie-the-Pooh novel.

Online conversations have generated certain typographical norms, in part due to the aesthetics of online typography and the limitations of HTML. MetaFilter has its own internal stylistics, such as text that's meant to be an aside, that are used/abused/played with.
posted by holgate at 4:26 PM on December 27, 2005


An interesting question, and an interesting set of answers. I don't have any special expertise to contribute to the discussion, but I would like to challenge the assumption that there was (so to speak) an 'pre-modern system' of heavy capitalisation which eventually gave way to the 'modern system' of light capitalisation. A lot of early printed texts are, in fact, very lightly capitalised, just as a modern text would be. Here are a couple of examples:

The Romaines changed gold for brasse, and loathing one king suffered manie tyrants, scourging their follie with their fall, and curing a festred sore with a poisoned plaister: for what could be more uniust, or more contrarie to the free estate of a citie, then to subiect the whole common weale to the rule of manie potentates, and to exclude the people from all right and interest in publique affaires? (printed 1601)

As huge as the sea is, yet one may taste the saltenesse of it in a drop, so in one sin you may see how ill-fauoured all the rest be; for there is no sinne but weakeneth the body, shortneth the life, corrupteth and consumeth the goods, peruerteth grace, and maketh us odious to God and Angells. (printed 1631)

(I should explain that these examples are taken completely at random. I used to be a bookseller, and still have several hundred sixteenth- and seventeenth-century books in what remains of my stock. These are just a couple of books that happened to be within arm's reach.)

The sort of Heavy Capitalisation that freebird is talking about is very unusual in early seventeenth-century books. In fact, I think it is pretty much confined to a hundred-year period between about 1650 and 1750. Here, for example, is a passage from a book printed in 1748:

Perhaps, drowned in Tears, and all overwhelmed with Sorrows, they stood, like weeping Statues, on this very Spot. Methinks I see the deeply distressed Mourners attending the sad Solemnity. How they wring their Hands, and pour Floods from their Eyes! Is it Fancy, or do I really hear the passionate Mother, in an Agony of Affliction, taking her final Leave of the Darling of her Soul?

As you can see, it's far more heavily capitalised than the earlier texts I quoted above. (By the way, I disagree with holgate's contention that lighter typography gradually became the norm after about 1730. I think it lasted longer than that, though it was certainly dying out by the end of the century.)

So, what was the cause of this temporary fashion for heavy capitalisation? I don't have any definitive answer, just a handful of observations:

1. Heavy caps often occur in books intended to be read aloud, as a way of showing the reader which words to stress. So the emergence of heavy caps may be linked to the growth of literacy -- i.e. inexperienced readers were more likely to buy books printed with heavy caps, because they found it a help to comprehension.

2. Heavy caps are more commonly found in cheap print, e.g. pamphlets and newspapers. This may be because cheap print was slower to respond to the new typographical fashions that holgate mentions.

3. Heavy caps often occur in books designed to make a strong emotional impact on the reader. So the vogue for heavy caps may be associated with the eighteenth-century culture of sensibility.

4. Heavy caps also seem to be associated with the more chatty, conversational style of prose that comes into fashion in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. I don't know enough about eighteenth-century prose style to be able to comment sensibly on this, but I suspect it may have something to do with the new writer-to-reader relationship that goes along with the rise of journalism.

On preview: Mason & Dixon seems to me to be written in a style all its own -- a style that is internally consistent but in no way historically authentic, nor intended to be.
posted by verstegan at 4:35 PM on December 27, 2005 [2 favorites]


verstegan: My thanks for a superb comment; once again, AskMe comes through.

Mason & Dixon seems to me to be written in a style all its own -- a style that is internally consistent but in no way historically authentic, nor intended to be.

That's my take as well.
posted by languagehat at 5:19 PM on December 27, 2005


Interesting examples, verstegan! It certainly seems to me that there is really not a "true" system of capitalization until fairly recently. This of course doesn't contradict the fascinating trends holgate describes, but it would seem it makes the assignation of "historical accuracy" somewhat suspect, in all but the most general of senses.


On the general point, consider it the difference between wearing a frock-coat and hose on the street just because you like frock-coats, and wearing a frock-coat because you're a paid historical re-enactor or at a costume party.

Indeed. But if one really liked wearing frock-coats, what's so wrong with that? It seems a bit overly conformist to insist that only actors wear them, and a bit pedantic to complain that someone wearing one because they like it wasn't historically accurate, doesn't it?

Sorry, this really isn't the "general point". We keep veering off into my recent typographic excesses, and this isn't the place for that.

posted by freebird at 5:24 PM on December 27, 2005


verstegan: yes, heavy typography is a High Baroque phenomenon, as seen among writers such as Browne and Burton. But 1730 is definitely a starting point for the deliberate trend away from noun-capitalisation, seen in Pope's octavos. It just takes a while to spread. (Again, I'm going to point to David Foxon, whose work on the topic is second to none.)

So the vogue for heavy caps may be associated with the eighteenth-century culture of sensibility.

That makes sense, but isn't really borne out on the page. You get a small amount of playful typographical pointing in Sterne and Richardson, but barely any in, say, Mackenzie's Man of Feeling. The first editions of Sterne's Sentimental Education (1768) are quite 'clean', as far as capitalisation goes. The typographical appeals to emotion are in the dashes.

Heavy caps also seem to be associated with the more chatty, conversational style of prose that comes into fashion in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

In that case, though, you'd expect to see it in periodicals. There's a fairly standard caps-for-nouns plus italics for proper-nouns in the Spectator papers (1711-14); and that style hangs around in the Gentleman's Magazine (1731-78) before drifting away in the later half of the century. Compare this random page from 1731 to this random page from 1744, when the journal switched over from noun-capitalisation to lower-case.
posted by holgate at 6:02 PM on December 27, 2005 [1 favorite]


Yay holgate! Awesome, awesome stuff. You touched on this earlier, but what's the relationship between italicizing and capitalization, especially as used for emphasis? That is, they have a fairly "orthogonal" relationship today, where the former generally indicates emphasis, while the latter indicates proper nouns and sentence structure. Many of the older examples you wonderful people have put forth seem to overlap their roles a lot more.

In what cases and time periods, if any, would you italicize without capitalizing, and so forth? That is, does the movement away from capitalization leave the italicizing unchanged? It doesn't seem like it - as you so succinctly put it, there seems to be a general shift away from "Shouty" text, and from emphasizing anything at all. Does that change affect capitaliation first?

Sorry to keep asking questions, it's just great fun to borrow the use of everyone's surprisingly detailed knowledge...
posted by freebird at 6:25 PM on December 27, 2005


Roughly, freebird: for mid-1600s to mid-1700s, in styles where nouns are capitalised, caps+itals = proper noun. (With very proper nouns such as 'God' in small caps.)
posted by holgate at 6:33 PM on December 27, 2005


I know that the Dog/Rug mention is mostly facetious, but it actually has to do with word recognition. The evidence leans against word outline (obsessively described by obsessif Hrant H. Papazian as “boumas”) as a primary method of word recognition.

Besides, this business of having to go back to reread Dog or Rug would require you, in most instances, to be reading individual words in the first place. Most of the time, you are reading groups of words (fixations or saccades), so this is unlikely.
posted by joeclark at 8:51 AM on December 28, 2005


Word outline is definitely not a primary method of word recognition but it is an important facet of the whole kaboodle.

Hands up everyone who finds ALL CAPS TEXT EASIER TO READ THAN all lowercase text. Hands up everyone who finds Initial Caps Text Easier To Read than all lowercase text. And, finally, hands up everyone Who Finds random Initial caps Text easier To Read than all lowercase.

[surveys the crowd]

Precisely. If you goal is to communicate effectively on MeFi, you'd best stick to more-or-less standard writing practices.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:15 PM on December 28, 2005


Let it go, fff. Read the thread - noone is discussing random capitalization, and this is not the place for your opinion on MeFi comment style.
posted by freebird at 2:55 PM on December 28, 2005


It looks as though this discussion is running out of steam, but I hope it's not too late for me to add another comment.

freebird, you ask about italicization. In my experience (mostly of seventeenth-century books), there's a lot of diversity here, and no clear set of conventions. Some books are italicised very sparingly, others very heavily. It's common to use italics for quotations and proper names, but some books use italics for emphasis as well. John Donne writes in the preface to one of his books, in 1610, that he's italicized certain words 'to draw [the reader's] eye and understanding more intensely upon that place, and so make deeper impressions thereof'. The fact that he needs to explain this implies that the use of italics for emphasis was fairly unusual at the time.

I have a theory -- which may or may not be true, but certainly seems plausible to me -- that the late-seventeenth-century vogue for heavy capitalization begins with manuscript and then gradually crosses over into print. Why? Well, by the mid-seventeenth century, the two major styles of handwriting, italic and secretary, had started to merge into each other, so it wasn't so easy to distinguish between the two when writing a letter. In other words: the general style of handwriting starts drifting more towards italic, so it's not so easy to use italics for emphasis. So what do you do if you're writing a letter and you want to emphasize a particular word? You capitalize it instead. And this gradually becomes the norm in print as well.

holgate, your remarks on Pope puzzled me at first, because when I think of Pope's poems, I can almost see the text marching in front of my eyes, with heavy capitalization:

Spare then the Person, and expose the Vice.
How Sir! not damn the Sharper, but the Dice?

See, all our Nobles begging to be Slaves!
See, all our Fools aspiring to be Knaves!

etc. Without the capitals, the poetry would lose half its force. So I found it hard to accept your assertion that Pope pioneered the trend towards lighter capitalization.

I've now looked at Foxon's book, and I think we are both right. You are right, in that Pope chose to abandon the practice of capitalizing every single noun (which had been the norm up to that point) and, in so doing, set a fashion for lighter capitalization which other writers followed. However, I am also right, in that Pope still chose to capitalize some nouns (as in the examples above) and didn't immediately go over to the modern style of very light capitalization.

What I find particularly fascinating is that many people in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries obviously preferred texts that were more 'shouty', and seem to have found them easier to read. Yet -- as the comments in this thread make abundantly clear -- many people today find 'shouty' texts more difficult to read. I wouldn't have guessed that the physical process of reading could be so culturally determined.
posted by verstegan at 11:12 AM on December 29, 2005 [1 favorite]


I'm still listening, verstegan! It's interesting to ponder the interplay between written and printed text - as mentioned above, there will surely be economic and technical factors which affect print first, then alter written styles indirectly. But your point about influence going the other way is interesting too. I wonder also if some of the changes we see in "modernity" have to do with this relationship. It seems as though method of generating the text (written vs. printed) is becoming a less fundamental distinction. Most of what I would have written a century ago - letters, prose, memos, etc - is now typed on a computer. So the distinction to look at is perhaps more one of "intent" and "formality".

This change also may speak to your last paragraph, about what's percieved as making text "harder" or "easier" to read. There may be a change in the Volume and Kind of text that we read daily. Volume, in that we probably just read a hell of a lot more, so minor differences in reading "efficiency" may matter more. Kind, in that we may read a lot more text that we don't give our full aesthetic and cognitive attention to. We're scanning comment threads and RSS feeds and websites, and we may not *want* delicate nuance and attention to emphasis.

Personally, I like the way Capitalization as Emphasis can call attention to words and phrases, but I can see how it might frustrate me if the entire Web did it. I find enough of the comments here at MeFi worth really paying attention to that I don't mind unexpected emphasis and games with structure, but when I'm reading a blog post on the newest Warcraft patch I may not *care* which particular words the 15 year old author wants to subtly emphasize.
posted by freebird at 1:17 PM on December 29, 2005


In other words: the general style of handwriting starts drifting more towards italic, so it's not so easy to use italics for emphasis. So what do you do if you're writing a letter and you want to emphasize a particular word? You capitalize it instead.

That's an interesting conjecture, but don't most MSS suggest that, as is the case today, italicisation was done with the underline? There was certainly an aping of print -- some of Pope's older MSS have mocked-up titles in something akin to 'drawn Caslon' -- but the underline-italic mapping seems pretty constant from my experience (albeit limited to literary texts).

I'd point back to the Gent. Mag. archives as a good source-text for what seems to be going on with capitalisation, at least from the typesetters' perspective, in the mid-1700s. The most formulaic sections (particularly the births, deaths, marriages &c) are the slowest to change, and that's something you'll see reflected today, particularly in 'traditional' spaces such as the obits page of the Irish Times.
posted by holgate at 1:26 AM on January 2, 2006


Something just occurred to me, plucked out of the morass of my knowledge of the time. One of the distinctions established during this period was between those who read 'out loud', whether actually reading aloud, or reading as if out loud, and those who read silently in that scanning-not-vocalising manner that (I presume) we now generally follow. With a population that was more literate, but demonstrating different degrees of literacy, that distinction was significant.

If you're writing for vocalisers, then you're more readily going to embrace heavier forms, just as, say, Hebrew and Arabic texts may chuck in vowel marks for learners. If you're writing for scanners, you'll likely choose lighter forms.

That doesn't necessarily fit with the heavy setting of heavy intellectual texts, such as Browne, Burton (or Hobbes, for that matter). But one certainly finds very heavy typography in late-17th-c devotional/didactic texts meant for non-intellectuals, such as the Whole Duty of Man.
posted by holgate at 1:42 AM on January 2, 2006


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