The evolution of empty space in how we read and write
It’s a safe bet that you’re reading this text silently, because that’s how text works, right? You read the words presented, process their meaning in your mind, and then maybe relate them to others verbally or by sharing the text directly (hint hint.) At this point, I’m going to guess that you’re wondering why this is even being spelled out to you- this is how reading works, right? As it turns out, this concept of reading is relatively new. For the majority of human history, people had a very different relationship with words on a page, starting with all the parts that they didn’t even bother to transcribe in the first place.
Skipping vowels or spaces
While alphabets have existed for nearly 4000 years, not all languages recorded them like a modern English speaker is used to. Languages related to Aramaic, like Hebrew and Phoenician, had vowels but didn’t write them down. Instead, consonants were strung together, and readers just had to use context to put together what word was intended by the author. As difficult as that may sound, some modern languages, including Arabic, still use a writing system that skips writing vowels. European languages obviously did start incorporating vowels thanks to the ancient Greeks, although when they started writing them, they dropped some critical punctuation as a trade-off.
By the time The Iliad was written, Greeks had more or less given up on spaces between words, adopting a system now known as scriptio continua. The entire word was spelled out, but entiresentencesweremashedtogether. It seems like this would just convince all the Greeks to declare “too long, didn’t read,” and do an extent they did. This is because the purpose of writing at that time was primarily to record someone’s oral statements so that they could be stated for a new audience. Mashing words together without spaces made reading a bit more cumbersome, but that was fine when the point of a written scroll was read words aloud to other people. The reader could see what sounds to pronounce, and so plowing through an endless line of phonemes worked fine.
Adding spaces for accessibility
As human societies came in more and more contact with each other, scriptio continua started causing problems. For hundreds of years, the few people who could read throughout Europe were satisfied with this kind of writing, since most listeners were never going to see the text itself to even worry about it. However, in the ninth century, Irish scribes hit a snag, as the manuscripts they were copying were proving to be extremely difficult to parse. As native Celtic speakers, the scribes couldn’t simply “hear” the gaps in the words that speakers of Romance languages like Italian or French could, and so they started incorporating other cues in the writing to help make sense of things. They started with line breaks, giving each sentence it’s own line on a page. That was followed by spaces between words, with the Book of Mulling being the first volume to be transcribed in a way that wouldn’t immediately scare off a modern reader.
Adding spaces to a page did more than make sentences more intelligible. As the practice spread across Europe, it started to influence people’s relationship with writing. This new writing no longer put the emphasis on sounds and speech, allowing for the reader to become the primary audience instead of a performer. With that change in focus, making a page pleasing to the reader sparked new ideas in graphic design, since those efforts would help readers and writers alike. The printing press and subsequent accessibility of reading materials obviously cemented the idea of reading as something people could do by themselves, but the simple act of putting spaces between words was a key step towards making reading a goal unto itself, although it’s certainly not time to think that our relationship with the written word has been settled.
Trading space for more speed
The amount of writing in the world today is unmatched in history. More people are expected to read more than ever before, and huge amounts of that text is found on electronic devices that are starting to sever our relationship with the media it appears on. Modern graphic design loves white space more than ever, and many people would advise that the most accessible writing is lists of short phrases as opposed to “walls of text” that will scare readers away. However, as more writing appears on screens, there’s a chance that we could give up spacing in an entirely new way, displaying only one word at a time on your screen.
Instead of scanning your eyes across a sentence, text can be animated, with each word changing in the center of your screen so your eyes can focus on one physical location. It’s a significantly faster way to read, as moving your focus across a page or screen slows you down just a bit. As we consume more writing on daily basis, reading at 600 to 1000 words per minute may start to sound pretty attractive, as much as that would baffle the ancient Greeks.
Source: No Word Unspoken by Daniel Zalewski, Lingua Franca