3 min read

Spacing Out

ancient manuscript in scriptio continua
Fragment of an ancient manuscript from the 1st century BC

It seems that the little things we take for granted are often the things that affect us the most, and one aspect of our lives you might never think about are the spaces between words.

Yet the spaces between words are an invention, and they signal a major turning point in human history.

For thousands of years, texts were written in scriptio continua, a style of continuous writing with no spaces. Spaces between words were not invented, or added, to manuscripts until the 7th and 8th centuries, and even then it took another 500 years before they were widely used.

scriptio continua manuscript
Commentary on the Old Testament written in scriptio continua

It's hard to overstate how important this shift was. Adding (and removing) spaces between words profoundly alters the contours of cognition and culture in more ways than you realize and there is an immense body of research on this topic.

Words and sentences (as we know them today) simply didn't exist before there were spaces. There was no punctuation, no correct spellings, no correct word orders, no definitions, and no dictionaries. The act of reading was a slow, challenging process as readers read aloud (often together with other people) and puzzled out the meaning of a text. Texts were meant to be read, savored, and interpreted over lifetimes and generations rather than consumed in a single sitting.

group of ancient philosophers discussing a text
Ancient readers could spend lifetimes deciphering and savoring texts

Adding spaces created, for the first time, a new understanding that a text could be broken into words; and these words were distinct, repeatable "signs" that could be learned and memorized.

This transformed reading from an act of drawn-out interpretation and engagement to an act of instant recognition and memorization.

Inventing the idea that words were repeatable units then led to the dictionaries, grammatical rules, correct spellings, and accepted word orders we now take for granted and govern all aspects of how we use language today.

early dictionary
The dawn of an era—and all we've ever known

As a result, modern reading is fast and hyper-efficient as our eyes skim lines of memorized word shapes arranged in sequences that follow expected rules. We now read silently inside our own heads, rather than reading out loud with other people and discussing meaning.

I'm particularly fascinated by this idea because I wonder how our engagement with language would change if we experimented with different ways of removing spaces again.

It seems ridiculous to imagine taking out the spaces between words, yet we do this every day without thinking when we write email or internet addresses, and researchers have discovered that children can easily read text without spaces until they reach fifth grade.

So, what do you think...Is the fast, disposable reading we do as modern readers any better than the deep reading and oral traditions of ancient cultures? Taking out spaces requires that your readers slow down and fully engage with your words—is that such a bad thing?


This post is drawn from a section of my book "Language Making Nature," which explores the art of creating new words. If you'd like to learn more about this topic, check out "Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading" by Paul Saenger.