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Ligatures: History of Modernizing Our Writing

The difference between writing of the past and writing today

Alyssa Gould
Apr 30, 2020 · 4 min read

If you read literature from our past, you may notice particular differences with the language of the past and the language of today. Where do those differences come from? And when did our written language change?

(the ampersand) comes from the Latin word “et” meaning “and”. “&c” can also represent et cetera for the same reason. “cetera” meaning “the rest”.

How did “et” become “&” anyway?

It‘s known as a ligature.

What is a ligature?

A ligature is a character that combines two or more characters into a single character. Generally there are two types of ligatures: Typographic, and Orthographic.

Typographic

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Typographic ligatures are usually a stylistic choice, and don’t represent a new symbol or letter. Typographic ligatures are often used in the creation of fonts or for cursive writing as a visual, or stylistic option.

In the situation of “fi” or “fl”, they are simply combined as a stylistic choice and do not represent a new letter of the alphabet with its own meaning.

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Orthographic

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Orthographic ligatures are a part of the etymology of a language, and aren’t optional. Digraphs (a combination of two letters that form one sound, like sh) are often a reason to create a ligature in a language. The “w” from the Latin alphabet is the most common example, as it derives from “uu”, “vv” or double u (double v in other languages). This is orthographic because the w is now a necessary letter in our alphabet to create certain words, as opposed to the stylistic choice of making letters connect for cursive or fonts.

Why did these ligatures form in the first place?

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Tanto Monta ->Tãto mõta (source)

During the Middle Ages, it was very expensive to make or buy paper. So, scribes had to preserve as much paper as they could to be able to write as much as possible.

Their solution was ligatures.

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One most commonly used ligature in Spain was the creation of the tilde “~” for “ñ”.

Many Spanish words originated from Latin. Many of these words had repeated letters that didn’t seem necessary to write out every time. To shorten them, they chose to just write one letter and add a tilde. The tilde is literally a miniature “N” that was placed at the top of letters for certain meanings. In Latin scripts, the usage of the tilde was also common.

We can see this through the Latin word “annus” which means “year” that used to be written as “anno”. It is currently written as “año” in modern Spanish.

However, if the tilde represents an “n”, then it could also be placed above the “a” like “ãno” and have the same meaning. There was no order to it, until the “ñ” became a unique sound on its own in Spanish. That is why it is still used in modern Spanish.

This tilde is also used in Portuguese for “ã” and “õ”. In Portuguese, this tilde represents a nasal sound, and would sometimes replace a “an” or “on”. However, the Portuguese also found the tilde as a convenient way to represent the nasal sounding “ã” and “õ” that were unique to Portuguese.

Another example includes the ç in French, Catalan, and Portuguese &c. The “ç” is a ligature of “c” and “z” and represents a “ts” sound.

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Umlauts (¨) above a vowel also originated as a ligature, and are currently used in German, and Spanish &c. “ä”, “ö”, and “ü” originated from combinations of the vowel and “e” on top of the letter, like aͤ, oͤ, uͤ. They are also pronounced in a similar way as ae, oe, and ue. Even when the umlaut isn’t available on a keyboard, the ae, oe, ue form is still used today.

The German Eszett “ß” or “scharfes S” is also considered a ligature of “ſ” and “ʒ” that combine the long s and round s letters. In Berlin, these street signs represent a different way of writing the ß.

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Resources:

Thank you!

My name is Alyssa Gould, and I’m passionate about the intersection between Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality, and Second Language Acquisition!

Feel free to contact me at alyssa25g25@gmail.com for questions or anything!

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Alyssa Gould

Written by

alyssamgould.com Passionate about design, languages, and history!

Exploring History

Exploring History is a publication about history. Instead of focusing on any particular time period of history, we explore anything about the past that helps our readers understand the world they live in today. We pay special attention to historiographical rigor and balance.

Alyssa Gould

Written by

alyssamgould.com Passionate about design, languages, and history!

Exploring History

Exploring History is a publication about history. Instead of focusing on any particular time period of history, we explore anything about the past that helps our readers understand the world they live in today. We pay special attention to historiographical rigor and balance.

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