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Silent Reading



When [Ambrose] read, his eyes scanned the page and his voice was silent and his tongue was still.

-- Saint Augustine: Confessions, 397 CE

The fact that a scholar like Augustine would express surprise on finding Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, reading silently  tells us something about how readers approached books in the ancient world. For thousands of years-from the invention of writing in the fourth century BCE to around 1000 CE-reading almost invariably meant reading aloud. For most of that time, it also meant reading from unbroken lines of text.

Notice, for instance, that in the writing in the accompanying page from the Codex Sinaiticus-a copy of the Greek Bible made around 350 CE-is in scriptura continua (continuous script), with no spaces between words. For almost all readers, understanding came by sounding out the syllables; early writing was meant to be read aloud. When we talk, we-don't-speak-like-this, but wespeaklikethis, and the ancients wrote the way they spoke. Back then, stringing together letters without spaces between words was hardly a problem.

Around 800 CE Irish monks, invented the word-break system which we still use today, leading to near-universal silent reading, since spaces between words relieved readers of the need to sound out text. Actually, the monks re-invented word breaks. Previous to 800 BCE, when the Greeks adopted the Phoenician alphabet, most writing in the ancient world did have spaces between words-but those words lacked vowels. When Greek scribes added symbols for vowels, they apparently considered word breaks an unnecessary convenience. For well over a thousand years, first Greeks, then Romans, wrote almost exclusively in scriptura continua.

Why would those intelligent, literary people drop what seems to us such an obvious advantage for the reader? According to literary-detective Paul Saenger in Space Between Words (devoting nearly 500 pages to the question), "[Readers] relished the mellifluous metrical and accentual patterns of pronounced [i.e. spoken] text and were not interested in the swift intrusive consultation of books [so] the absence of interword space in Greek and Latin was not perceived to be an impediment to effective reading..."

When scribes began to add spaces between words, they changed the whole neuropsychological process of reading. No longer did a solitary reader have to slowly and painfully extract information from text, mumbling to himself as he did so. With the task of word separation now assigned to the scribe rather than the reader, reading became silent, rapid, effortless and meditative, and what had formerly been a chore became a delight. Inevitably ever-increasing numbers of people wanted to experience it for themselves. And since you've gotten this far, I trust you agree.

Barry Evans (barryeva[email protected]) wonders what Ambrose would have made of a Kindle.


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