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lonesome-dog's avatar

I've discovered something I don't quite believe. In Classic written Greek there were no spaces between words; I don't quite believe that, but could it be correct?

Asked by lonesome-dog (253points) January 7th, 2021

This bit of odd information was found in a New Yorker article. When the New Yorker, famous for it’s fact checking, offers it, it has to be true. Imagine though how many interpretations could follow a word jumble such as this implies.

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13 Answers

Jeruba's avatar

Go to a museum (or Google) and look at an artifact from ancient Greece. Or look at the Rosetta Stone. (The Greek is on the bottom. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and Demotic are on top. This was the key to decoding ancient Egyptian.) Not many spaces.

Closer look.

Here is some information about other languages with that written form. Sanskrit is another one. As I recall, there were other ways of marking the boundaries between words.

There’s also the fact that inflected languages such as Latin and Sanskrit typically have certain word endings (of which we have a few in English, though not many—such as the -ed of past tenses and the -s of third-person-singular verbs), forms that typically come only at the end of words and therefore signal a break. The grammar and syntax of the sentence give plenty of clues to where the breaks should be.

Jeruba's avatar

Compare, also, the languages such as Chinese and Japanese that are written in ideographs. Spaces really don’t have a use or meaning such as in languages that are spelled. I remember reading that there are poems in Chinese that can be written in a circle (such as on a bracelet) and read in order beginning with each different character. Each reading has a different meaning.

Wasn’t the Hebrew of the Old Testament also written without spaces?

Waiting for @Demosthenes.

elbanditoroso's avatar


lonesome-dog's avatar

I’m just in the process of reading Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey and it’s so fine. So I guess I’ll add the ‘non spaced words’ aspect of Greek to Emily, and just enjoy. I will add that of this translation Richard Thomas, one of Harvard’s fine Classical scholars, says “a staggeringly superior translation, true, poetic, and readable…” I think he liked it. Thank you Juruba, your answer gave me lots of roads to run down.

Demosthenes's avatar

@Jeruba :D

Yes, it’s true that in Classical Greek, the practice of scriptio continua (writing without spaces or symbols to mark word boundaries or punctuation of any kind for that matter) was common. This is found in some other writing systems as well, including later Latin writing, but it seems to have been done a little later and the original situation was to use word dividers to mark word boundaries. A blank space is just one type of word divider, but Greek and Latin used interpuncts or other symbols with the same function as a space.

For some modern examples, Thai does not mark boundaries between words but often does between clauses or sentences. Japanese is similar; I studied Japanese and never found it difficult to know where the word boundaries were largely due to the use of Chinese characters in content words and hiragana in grammatical forms, so it was obvious where the boundaries were.

Jeruba's avatar

The length of words is itself an idea that I’ve thought about in terms of conventional understanding versus practical use. A little kid says “elephant” and some adult is apt to gush, “Such a big word!” But how does the little kid know that “I want a cookie” isn’t all one word, a word with five syllables? That understanding comes later, it seems to me. The word breaks aren’t really important until you want to rearrange the pieces.

English is spoken with most syllables elided, and we find it strange when someone speaks with a glottal stop after each word. We run it all together, breaking for various things but not after every word, and the hearer sorts it out just fine.

If you were used to a predictable system of writing as a representation of speech and it didn’t have word breaks, you would automatically parse it and it wouldn’t be a problem.

LostInParadise's avatar

Weren’t the Greeks the first to have vowels in their alphabet? I seem to recall hearing that. The original Phoenician alphabet and its immediate Semitic derivatives did not have vowels. I would think that having vowels would make it a lot easier to read text without word breaks.

SavoirFaire's avatar

One more thing to consider is that Greek and Latin have some pretty strict rules about word formation, including rules about grammatical agreement (which extends even to definite and indefinite articles) and about which letters can and cannot be at the end of a word (to the extent that sigma changes form when in word-final position). This can give readers and translators many clues about where one word ends and another begins.

Jeruba's avatar

And while we’re at it, here’s a look at cuneiform.

Demosthenes's avatar

@LostInParadise That is true. The Phoenician “alphabet” was really an abjad, which is a script in which only consonants are written and vowels are filled in by the reader, so the Greek alphabet (derived from the Phoenician) was the first true alphabet. It’s certainly much more difficult to use scriptio continua with an abjad.

Jeruba's avatar

@SavoirFaire, I never knew that was the reason for the two sigma minuscules; it was just the way it was, like the rough and smooth breathing symbols. My father taught me to read the Greek alphabet when I was seven, but he didn’t know the language himself and couldn’t teach me much of anything about it beyond conjugating a couple of verbs (he liked διδάσκω). In all these years, I never thought to ask why the special form.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@Jeruba The minuscule script is a later development, of course, but having two different versions of sigma is a revival of a distinction in the majuscule script that was lost over time. Also, your father had excellent taste in verbs.

LostInParadise's avatar

@Demosthenes , thanks. I am going to have to see how I can insert abjad into a conversation.

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