Writing systems and manuscripts

The other day I came across an interesting article about writing systems and manuscripts in which the author divides writing systems into a number of different types such as bilinear, trilinear and quadrilinear, and equates different characteristics to the cultures using each type.

Bilinear scripts occupy all the space between notional upper and lower limits, as do CAPITAL LETTERS in the Latin alphabet. Other examples include such ancient scripts as Etruscan, Roman, Egyptian and Babylonian, and modern scripts like Chinese, Japanese and Korean. The author suggests that the main aim of such scripts is “to confine and constrain the written word” in order to fix words and to “to preserve the magical power of the word and to control people and things”, and that societies orientated towards magic and mysticism tend to choose such scripts.

Trilinear scripts occupy the same space as bilinear ones, but the letters can be positioned with their tops snug either with the upper or lower limits. Letters such as p, b, d and q have these characteristics. The author suggests that such scripts are “practical and dynamic”, that they are indended “to record speech as-spoken” and were used by practical societies. The Sumerian and Akkadian cuneiform scripts are trilinear.

Quattrolinear scripts, which include lower case versions of the modern Latin and Greek alphabets, have letters than can occupy the whole of the space, extend only to the upper of lower limits, or sit in the middle of the space.

The article also explains how different sizes and formats of written documents were used for different purposes in the ancient world, and that the influence of such practices is still with us. In ancient Sumeria, for example, the largest clay tablets were used for writing legal documents issued by the government – the law. The size of such tablets was limited by the weight of the clay though and they tend to be 14-15 inches high by 8-9 inches wide – the largest size one person could lift. Over time this size became fixed.

Clay tablets didn’t need margins as they were baked hard to preserve them and their edges didn’t crumble and they were completely covered in writing. However when people started to write on parchment, which did need margins, they had to use larger pieces to preserve the standard dimensions of the writing area. Meanwhile the Egyptian were finding it difficult to make papyrus rolls big enough to conform to the standard measurements for legal documents. After Alexander the Great conquered Egypt, the Greeks came up with a simple solution to this problem – they rotated the direction of writing by ninety degrees, after which Greek legal documents were 9-10 inches wide by 14 inches high. The Romans adopted the same practice and made their legal documents wider.

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0 Responses to Writing systems and manuscripts

  1. renato figueiredo says:

    I think that for all people around the world, who have a distinct alphabet, it is very dificult to learn the manuscript, and very easier to learn the capital letters. For me, Ruassian, Greek and Hebrew looks like another language, different from the one written in capital letters the Russian D has two manuscript forms. It is confuse. I think Russians, Greeks and Israelis people, think the same about Latin manuscript.

  2. goofy says:

    The main purpose of a totally bilinear limit system is to confine and constrain the written word. It intentionally “freezes” the words into an unchanging form to preserve the magical power of the word and to control people and things. Consequently, magical-mystical oriented societies choose strictly bilinear limits.

    I’m skeptical. I’m not sure it’s true that societies choose scripts. The author says “Writing systems are perhaps the most conservative of all cultural artefacts.” Don’t societies just use a certain script because they have a tradition of using that script?

    If I design a sign using all capital letters, does that mean I’m magical-mystical oriented?

  3. Jason Fisher says:

    Quattrolinear scripts, which include lower case versions of the modern Latin and Greek alphabets, have letters than can occupy the whole of the space, extend only to the upper of lower limits, or sit in the middle of the space.

    Hmm. Is it really true that such scripts include letters that can occupy the whole of the space? In the Latin alphabet, there are no letters with both an ascender and a descender. I can think of only one arguable exception — the lower-case thorn (þ), in most fonts, has both. Can anyone think of other ‘quattrolinear’ scripts with glyphs that take up the full workspace? Is this how we would describe the Greek letters xi (ξ)and zeta (ζ)?

    And is is really quattrolinear, as your source says, or quadrilinear, as you wrote at the top of your post? Personally, I’d vote for the latter.