Latin was so short because Romans couldn’t read…

Adeste fideles, laeti triumphantes

Oh come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant…

Why is the Latin so much shorter on the page?

It isn’t shorter in spoken form, of course, but is is common for written Latin to be considerably shorter than written English (or French or Spanish or whatever). Why, with all the social and technological developments of the last 2000 years, has written language come to take up more space than it did?

Here is my guess. If we took a time machine back 2000 years, to a busy square in Classical Rome at its height, we would no doubt notice many things, but one would probably be this: Romans reading tablets would be moving their lips as they did so.

In other words, ancient Romans could not speed-read at all; in other words, they could not read just with their mind. They had to mouth the words as they read. Remember, literacy was to them what printing was to Elizabethans – a relatively recent technology; just as the Internet took another few centuries after printing, speed-reading took another few centuries after literacy.

Because the Romans (and their contemporaries) read more slowly, they did not need so many “filler” words. However, once speed-reading became the norm several centuries later, increasingly other words had to be thrown on to the page – most obviously articles such as “the” and “an” and prepositions such as “to” and “by”, as well as auxiliary verbs.

Where Classical Latin used endings to mark words’ relationship to each other (word order was less important, but nouns and adjectives were marked as subjects or objects) or case (indirect or direct objects etc), or tense (past, present, future), or aspect (complete or incomplete action) or whatever, its daughter languages (Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian etc) do this predominantly by inserting extra words. This trend is far from complete, but it is a trend which continues (for example, the future tense is marked with an ending in Standard Spanish, but in much of South America it is almost never heard in daily speech, where a form using an auxiliary verb has taken over).

So, languages take up more space on the page these days because they need to for us to speed-read them. That was not the case in Ancient Rome.


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