Evolution of the Uncial Script

Contents: Introduction *Table of Scripts Used in Various Uncials *Easily Confused Uncials (Greek and Latin) *Appendix: The Evolution of Writing Styles


In describing the script used Greek manuscripts, we speakof "uncial" and "minuscule" writing. But neitherof these forms are fixed; both evolved over time. (Fortunately forus, else paleographers would have very little evidence to work with.)Indeed, late uncials show many features of the minuscule script,and many minuscules use uncial forms of at least certain letters.

The table below shows how uncials evolved over the centuries.Note how the clear, simple forms of early centuries could give way tovery crabbed, difficult styles toward the end of the uncial era.

Note: Most uncials are rather small -- rarely more than a centimetretall, and often much less. This means that it is difficult to reproducethem accurately on a computer screen. Although I worked hard to getreasonably clean scans (often enlarging the lettering for clarity),one should not consider the images below authoritative. For detailedpaleographic work, refer to a manual on the subject.

The table below generally shows the most typical hand used foreach manuscript -- e.g. the chart for Sinaiticus shows the handof scribe A, who wrote all but a handful of the leaves of the NewTestament.

Table of Scripts Used in Various Uncials

Description of Manuscripts in the Above Table

Note: The above examples are intended to be printed at 72-75 dpi resolution,and the figures for sizes are based on that number.

As a very rough rule of thumb, the trend of manuscript evolution was towardnarrower letters and smaller lower-case forms, in an attempt to conserve parchment.But this is only a rough guide.

Easily Confused Uncials (Greek and Latin)

As in most scripts, certain letters are easily confused in Greek uncials,and can sometimes give rise to errors. Some such examples are shown below(though each particular style of uncial will have its own examples), with theuncial form on the left and the modern form on the right:

(confusing uncials)

In Latin, the following uncials are frequently confused (note that E, like the Greekepsilon, was written in rounded form as an uncial):

Appendix: The Evolution of Writing Styles

To understand the letterforms of a particular language, it is necessaryto know the characteristics of the material it was written on. We noted above,for instance, the difference between the letterforms carved on the RosettaStone and the uncial script of the same general period: The engraved letterformsuse almost entirely straight strokes.

Nonetheless it is clear that the Greek alphabet is originally a written(as opposed to a carved or inscribed) alphabet. This is in contrast to, forinstance, the German runic alphabet, designed for inscriptions; its every strokeis straight.

Even more curious are the letterforms used in the Indian Ocean region(Sri Lanki, Burma). Books in those areas were written on palm leaves whichhad been cut to size and smoothed. Letters were inscribed with a stylus, andthen (in at least some cases) inked.

Because the palm leaves were fragile and had a distinct grain, it was notpossible, in the case of these writings, to use a horizontal stroke. Such astroke would inevitably split the grain of the palm leaf, ruining the writingsurface.

I have read that portions of the Quran were written on palm leaves also.But these portions were actually written, not inscribed, so the matterof stroke directions is somewhat less significant.

Other odd writing materials would have other effects. Certain importantclassical documents, e.g., were written on linen or woven cloth. Suchcloth may not have a grain, but if it does, it will usually be easier towrite horizontal and vertical strokes. And curves would be difficulton any woven material.

Cuneiform writing was not restricted so much by the writing material(clay will accept strokes in any direction) as by the stylus used to writeit. You could, theoretically, draw almost anything in such a system, butit will be much slower.

All of these constraints have affected writing at one time or another.Imagine trying to inscribe the myriad symbols of Chinese writing in stone!The Chinese ideographic alphabet is possible only on surfaces which makewriting possible. Surfaces which make writing difficult but make differentstrokes possible, on the other hand, encourage syllabaries, which use fewerstrokes than alphabetic systems though they are somewhat harder to learn.

These concerns are not entirely trivial for students of New Testamentwriting and paleography. Papyrus was not as fragile as palm leaf, but itdid have a very definite grain. This seems to be one reason why the codexwas not popular for classical writings. A papyrus sheet consisted of twosets of strips pasted together. For reasons of strength, one set of stripswould be set vertically, the other horizontally -- as a toy house today mightbe made with a double set of popsicle sticks, one half running vertically,the other horizontally. It was easy enough to write on the horizontal side --indeed, that side of the sheet would not even need to be ruled. The verticalside was another matter. There were, of course, seams between the reeds ofthe vertical side; writing on these seams was difficult, but avoiding themwas also problematic.

The roughness of the papyrus also had the effect of encouraging straightstrokes. This was much less of a concern on vellum, which was nearly smooth anddid not hinder curved strokes.