It’s all Greek to me

Last week I had the opportunity to show some of the work the Newton Project is doing at the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) conference at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. I decided to go linguistic and focus on some of the intricacies of early modern hand and print. Here’s a short excerpt of part of that talk.

As most of us are aware of, in Newton’s days Latin was the lingua franca of scholarly and scientific communication. This did not mean however that all scholarly publications were in Latin. Galileo published both in Latin and Italian. Newton’s Opticks was first published in English, with a Latin translation soon to follow. And the Philosophia Naturalis Principia Mathematica was translated in English two years after Newton’s death, thereby making it available to a larger audience whose Latin was not on par. Not that they understood much of it, but that had nothing to do with the language itself. Gradually, Latin lost foot however. Most of Robert Boyle’s works were published solely in English already, and around the mid-nineteenth century most scholars and scientists used their own vernacular. These days many scholars need to make an effort to be able to understand the works of their Latin speaking predecessors, but with a good dictionary and some guidance you can come a long way.

Not all was Latin though, in those days. Take the following:

Greek scribbles...

Yep, that’s all Greek. But you won’t be able to read it with your standard knowledge of classical Greek grammar and semantics. From the early medieval period onward, handwritten Greek became interspersed with various forms of shorthand, or ligatures. And when print was invented, printers created a special font to account for these. Some are relatively simple, like these:

Ligatures on the left, normal Greek on the right.
Ligatures on the left, normal Greek on the right.

But others tend to be rather tricky, and you really need to know them by heart. How about:

The bottom one even has a ligature in the 'normal' Greek...
The bottom one even has a ligature in the ‘normal’ Greek…

And what about these beauties?


I won’t go into too much detail about the history and rationale behind these ligatures – I could probably write a book about that – but just to show you that you don’t need Greek to encounter ligatures, here are some in English (and yes, that’s a familiar hand):

Wth Wch Ye Yt

That’s with, which, the (not ye!) and that for you.

So far for scribbles, next time we’ll go tekkie…


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