[sword-devel] The Origins of Silent Reading

David Haslam d.haslam at ukonline.co.uk
Sat Jan 9 07:51:29 MST 2010

Hi everyone,

Although this is slightly off-topic, I hope you won't mind if I share
something I just discovered during a Google search. I was already aware that
silent reading was a development that occurred during European history, but
this title homes in on how radical a change this was at the time.

Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading, by Paul Saenger

Product Description

Reading, like any human activity, has a history. Modern reading is a silent
and solitary activity. Ancient reading was usually oral, either aloud, in
groups, or individually, in a muffled voice. The text format in which
thought has been presented to readers has undergone many changes in order to
reach the form that the modern Western reader now views as immutable and
nearly universal. This book explains how a change in writing—the
introduction of word separation—led to the development of silent reading
during the period from late antiquity to the fifteenth century.

Over the course of the nine centuries following Rome’s fall, the task of
separating the words in continuous written text, which for half a millennium
had been a function of the individual reader’s mind and voice, became
instead a labor of professional readers and scribes. The separation of words
(and thus silent reading) originated in manuscripts copied by Irish scribes
in the seventh and eighth centuries but spread to the European continent
only in the late tenth century when scholars first attempted to master a
newly recovered corpus of technical, philosophical, and scientific classical

Why was word separation so long in coming? The author finds the answer in
ancient reading habits with their oral basis, and in the social context
where reading and writing took place. The ancient world had no desire to
make reading easier and swifter. For various reasons, what modern readers
view as advantages—retrieval of reference information, increased ability to
read “difficult” texts, greater diffusion of literacy—were not seen as
advantages in the ancient world. The notion that a larger portion of the
population should be autonomous and self-motivated readers was entirely
foreign to the ancient world’s elitist mentality.

The greater part of this book describes in detail how the new format of word
separation, in conjunction with silent reading, spread from the British
Isles and took gradual hold in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. The book
concludes with the triumph of silent reading in the scholasticism and
devotional practices of the late Middle Ages.


Prompted by a revisit to 
Frontends:FeatureList , and picking up from the bullet point about N-gram

Enjoy and learn!


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