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The Roman Alphabet In Its Original Contexts
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Karl Young

The Roman Alphabet In Its Original Contexts, by Karl Young

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Karl Young considers this essay to be a “warhorse”, for how often it has been reprinted. To which we say, “Hear here!” There is no one consistently reliable metric for quality in this world (sorry, you have to do the hard work of acquiring a discriminating taste yourself), but there are a few reasonable indicators that anyone seriously interested in improving their own efficiency in separating the wheat from the chaff. One of these is, and should be, how many publishers are willing to publish and re-publish a piece. Especially when those opportunities take place over wide swathes of time. Here is an opportunity for you to read it again, if you know it. Or, the opportunity to read for the first time an essay that most who have read it would call “required reading”. An excerpt from the Introduction:

     In this essay, I will sketch the early development of the design of the Roman letters, the manner of book production that went with it, and the nature of reading in the first centuries of its use — roughly from the second century B.C. through the fourth century A.D. We cannot date developments in the alphabet very precisely for this period, but we can point out two inventions that profoundly affected western civilization: the design of the Roman alphabet and the ascendancy of books with separate leaves bound along a spine. The first was an outgrowth of the tools available to the Roman writer, though it’s hard to imagine how the results could have been improved with better or more modern equipment. The second was achieved by the identification of a bookform with the rise of Christianity.

     Since the Roman period there have been seven other major developments:  the combined usage of different letter forms to make meaningful and useful code with the distinctions between what we call, following the usage of relatively recent printers, “upper” and “lower case” letters; consistent separation of individual words by adding blank space, and further reading cues in the form of punctuation; the replacement of vellum and papyrus by rag paper and later by paper made from inexpensive wood pulp; the successful adaptation of printing from movable types; the development of photographic printing techniques; the interaction between written or printed language and computers; and the successive shifts away from reading aloud to silent reading and speedreading. None but the first of these could have happened without an alphabet like that of the Romans.

—Karl Young

52 pages. $10, includes standard shipping within the Continental USA.

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