The History Of Type – Roman Square Capitals to Roman Cursive

Latin Alphabet

The Latin alphabet is the main writing system in use in the Western world and is the most widely used alphabetic writing system in the world. It is the standard script of the English language and is often referred to simply as “the alphabet” in English. It originated in the 7th century BC in Italy and has changed continually over the last 2500 years. It has roots in the Semitic alphabet and its offshoot alphabets, the Phoenician, Greek, and Etruscan. The phonetic values of some letters changed, some letters were lost and gained, and several writing styles developed. Two such styles, the minuscule and majuscule hands, were combined into one script with alternate forms for the lower and upper case letters. Due to classicism, modern uppercase letters differ only slightly from their classical counterparts.

Evolution of the Latin alphabet

The Latin alphabet started out as roman square capitals, uppercase serifed letters. Through cursive styles that developed to adapt the alphabet to writing with a pen, the lowercase letters evolved. Throughout the ages, many dissimilar variations of each letter have evolved that are still identified as being the same letter.

In the course of the evolution of the alphabet from the old italic alphabet, G and Q developed from C, from the Greek alphabet the letters K,X,Y,Z were taken, the letter j developed from a flourished i, v and u split and the ligature of vv became w, the letter thorn þ was introduced from the runic alphabet but was lost in all languages bar Icelandic, additionally the letter s after the 7th century.

Roman Square Capitals

Square capitals were used to write inscriptions, and less often to supplement everyday handwriting. When written in documents this style is known as Latin book hand. For everyday writing the Romans used a current cursive hand known as Latin cursive. Notable examples of square capitals used for inscriptions are found on the Pantheon, Trajan’s Column, and the Arch of Titus, all in Rome. Square capitals are characterized by sharp, straight lines, supple curves, thick and thin strokes, angled stressing and incised serifs. These Roman capitals are also called majuscules, as a counterpart to minuscule letters such as Merovingian and Carolingian.

Roman/Latin Cursive

Roman cursive (or Latin cursive) is a form of handwriting used in ancient Rome and to some extent into the Middle Ages and is divided into old cursive, and new cursive.

Old Roman cursive was the everyday form of handwriting used for writing letters, by merchants writing business accounts, by schoolchildren learning the Latin alphabet, and even by emperors issuing commands. A more formal style of writing was based on Roman square capitals, but cursive was used for quicker, informal writing. It was most commonly used from about the 1st century BC to the 3rd century AD. Old Roman cursive is very difficult to read for modern people used to the current cursive forms of the ‘Latin’ script, which have evolved beyond recognition. Some letters are unrecognizable – “a” looks like an uncial “a”, but with the left stroke still straight, “b” and “d” are hard to distinguish, “e” is a full height letter (like the “s”), “p” and “t” are very similar, and “v” is written above the baseline, resembling an inverted chevron.

New Roman cursive, also called minuscule cursive or later Roman cursive, developed from old Roman cursive. It was used from approximately the 3rd century to the 7th century, and uses letter forms that are more recognizable to modern eyes; “a”, “b”, “d”, and “e” have taken a more familiar shape, and the other letters are proportionate to each other rather than varying wildly in size and placement on a line.


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