Ireland’s Greatest Invention

No, this is not a bad joke. Or even a good joke, but quite an amazing discovery I have just made. It is to do with Latin script.

If you have ever seen the writing on an old Roman monument you may have noticed that it is a string of letters. They did not have spaces to break up the words and sentences. That is because the Greeks and Romans were primarily oral cultures. They passed on all their important information by speech, not in script. Information was only written down as a means of checking a person’s memory, so it was read by people who already knew the story, so was the reverse of what we do today – we mostly read to learn things for the first time.

Latin became the language of Christianity when the Emperor Constantine made it the national religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century. But there was a problem with Ireland, because it became christianised by travelling preachers – possibly including a certain St Patrick – but being then at the ends of the known world, it had never been part of the Roman empire.

Well, lucky for the Irish, you might say. Though they could have done with some decent roads. But that became a real problem, as this meant there were no native Latin speakers there to pass on the religion. They could not speak the language that was written down, so they had no way of breaking the strings of letters into spoken words. They were part of a religion, but they could not access the information it was based on.

 What to do?

 They invented spaces between the words so they could read the Bible and other texts. Which is great, if you think about it. They invented empty space.

But there is more to this. Reading was thus a totally different process for them than for any other Latin readers. They read in order to obtain knowledge. They were the first modern readers in the Western World. Which may explain why the island has such a strong literary tradition. Or maybe it’s just the whisky and poteen.

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4 thoughts on “Ireland’s Greatest Invention

    • another dad joke, but it shows how alphabets and languages evolve by being exposed to non nateive speakers. That’s how the alphabet was born in the first place – the Greeks adapted it from Sumerians and had to adapt it to cope with their own sounds. The same with Japanese – adapted and added to Chinese to make the worlds’s most complicated writign system.

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  1. I read a book last summer called Through the Language Glass which said that a notable difference between literate languages and illiterate languages was the use of contractions. Apparently in literate languages there are far fewer, perhaps because when we read we SEE the blank spaces and tend to keep them in tact.

    This post also reminded me of the book How The Irish Saved Civilization. Also a good read.

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