Scriptio continua

Vergilius Augusteus, Georgica 141ff, written in capitalis quadrata and in scriptio continua.

Scriptio continua, (Latin for "continuous script"), also known as scriptura continua or scripta continua, is a style of writing without spaces, or other marks between the words or sentences. The form also lacks punctuation, diacriticals, or distinguished letter case. In the West, the oldest Greek and Latin inscriptions used word dividers to separate words in sentences; however, Classical Greek and late Classical Latin both employed scriptio continua as the norm.[1][2]


Although scriptio continua is evidenced in most Classic Greek and Classic Latin manuscripts, different writing styles are depicted in documents that date back even further. And it must be noted that Classical Latin did often use the interpunct, specially in monuments and inscriptions.

In the oldest Classic Greek or in Alexandria, texts were formatted in a constant string of capital letters from right to left. Later, this evolved to “boustrophedon,” which included lines written in alternating directions. It was only later on that the Romans adapted the Etruscan alphabet to write Latin and, in the process, switched from using points to divide the words, to the Greek practice of scriptio continua.[3]

Before the advent of the codex (book), Latin and Greek script was written on scrolls by enslaved scribes. The role of the scribe was to simply record everything he heard, in order to leave documentation. Because the free form of speech is so continuous, adding inaudible spaces within the manuscripts was illogical. Furthermore, at a time when ink and papyrus were quite costly, adding spaces would be an unnecessary waste of such writing mediums. Typically, the reader of the text was a trained performer, who would have already memorized the content and breaks of the script. During these reading performances, the scroll acted as a cue sheet, and therefore did not require in-depth reading.

While the lack of word parsing forced the reader to distinguish elements of the script without a visual aid, it also presented him with more freedom to interpret the text. The reader had the liberty to insert pauses and dictate tone, making the act of reading a significantly more subjective activity than it is today. However, the lack of spacing also led to some ambiguity because a minor discrepancy in word parsing could give the text a different meaning. For example, a phrase written in scriptio continua as collectamexiliopubem may be interpreted as collectam ex Ilio pubem, meaning ‘a people gathered from Troy,’ or collectam exilio pubem, ‘a people gathered for exile.' Thus, readers had to be much more cognizant of the context to which the text referred.[4]


Over time, the current system of rapid silent reading for information replaced the older, slower, and more dramatic performance based reading,[5] and word dividers and punctuation became more beneficial to text.[6] Though paleographers disagree about the chronological decline of scriptio continua throughout the world, it is generally accepted that the addition of spaces first appeared in Irish and Anglo-Saxon Bibles and Gospels from the seventh and eighth centuries.[7] Subsequently, an increasing number of European texts adopted conventional spacing, and within the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, all European texts were written with word separation.[8]

When word separation became the standard system, it was seen as a simplification of Roman culture because it undermined the metric and rhythmic fluency generated through scriptio continua. In contrast, paleographers today identify the extinction of scriptio continua as a critical factor in augmenting the widespread absorption of knowledge in the Pre-Modern Era. By saving the reader the taxing process of interpreting pauses and breaks, the inclusion of spaces enables the brain to comprehend written text more rapidly. Furthermore, the brain has a greater capacity to profoundly synthesize text and commit a greater portion of information to memory.[9]

Scriptio continua is still in use in Thai, other Southeast Asian abugidas, (Burmese, Khmer, Javanese, Balinese, Sundanese script), Lao, and in languages that use Chinese characters (Chinese and Japanese). However, modern vernacular Chinese differentiates itself from ancient scriptio continua through its use of punctuation, although this method of separation was borrowed from the West only about a century ago. Before this, the only forms of punctuation found in Chinese writings were marks to denote quotes, proper nouns, and emphasis. Modern Tibetic languages also employ a form of scriptio continua; while they punctuate syllables, they do not use spacing between units of meaning.


Latin text

Latin text in scriptio continua with typical capital letters, taken from Cicero's De finibus bonorum et malorum:

Which in modern punctuation is:

Modern English

A form of scriptio continua has become common in internet e-mail addresses and domain names where, because the "space" character is invalid, the address for a website for "Example Fake Website" is written as – without spaces between the separate words.

Chinese language

The Chinese language did not encounter the problem of incorporating spaces into their text because, unlike most systems, where words are formed by combining a series of letters, each character already represented its own word.[10] Below is an example of a normal Chinese sentence, then what it would look like with spaces between words, followed by a pinyin transcription (in which words are normally divided), and finally an English translation:

Javanese script

An example of the first line of the declaration of human right in Javanese script, and when they are divided (in some modern writings) by spaces and dash sign, which looks different: (if you can't see the script, you can see the sample image here)

Because of the absence of spaces, in modern writing, (and on computers), the line-breaks have to be inserted manually, otherwise a long sentence will not break into new lines. Some computer input methods use a zero-width space (ZWS) instead for word breaks, which would then break the long sentences into multiple lines. However, this method has drawbacks because it will not render the writing "correct".

See also


  1. E. Otha Wingo. (1972). Latin punctuation in the classical age. The Hague: Mouton.
  2. Brent Harmon Vine (1993). Studies in archaic Latin inscriptions. Innsbruck: Institut für Sprachwissenschaft der Universität Innsbruck.
  3. Moore, F. C. T.. (2001). Scribes and Texts: A Test Case for Models of Cultural Transmission. The Monist, 84(3), 417–436. Retrieved from
  4. Parkes, M. B. "Antiquity: Aids for Inexperienced Readers and the Prehistory of Punctuation." Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West. Berkeley: U of California, 1993. 10-11. Print.
  5. Richard A. Lanham (2006). The Economics of Attention. ISBN 0-226-46882-8. page 113-115
  6. Burnley, D.. (1995). Scribes and Hypertext. The Yearbook of English Studies, 25, 41–62.
  7. Saenger, Paul (1997) Space between words: the origins of silent reading, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, page 21
  8. Saenger, Paul (1997) Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, pages 120-1.
  9. Saenger, Paul (1997) Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, pages 16-17.
  10. Moore, F. C. T.. (2001). Scribes and Texts: A Test Case for Models of Cultural Transmission. The Monist, 84(3), 417–436. Retrieved from
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