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No spaces between words? Reading aloud?

Paul Saenger

Did you know that reading aloud was once more common that reading silently? And it was more common than not to see NO spaces between words in written text?

In the final In a Manner of Speaking episode of 2023, Paul dives into this topic with Paul Saenger, curator of rare books, emeritus, at Chicago’s Newbury Library and author of Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading.

Go here to listen to the podcast episode, or find it on your favorite podcast channel of index.

Episode 71 (The History of Silent Reading)

Paul Seanger

For the last episode of 2023, Paul talks to Paul Saenger, curator of rare books, emeritus, at Chicago’s Newberry Library, about the history of silent reading (versus reading aloud) and the evolution of inserting (or not inserting) spaces between words.

They discuss the physiological processes required for decoding a written text written without spaces between words and how that practice influenced the long tradition of reading aloud.

From 1985 to 2013, Paul Saenger directed collection development at the Newberry Library in Chicago. His publications include Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading (Stanford University Press, 1997) and A Catalogue of Pre-1500 Western Manuscript Books at the Newberry Library (1989). He is also the author of numerous articles, including recently “Comment Lire est Devenu un Jeu d’Enfant,” L’Histoire (no. 454, 2018), “Orality and Visible Language” in The Oxford Handbook of Latin Palaeography (2020), “Des Blancs Entre les Mots,” Écriture et image (December 2021), and “Augustine as Reader: Prospects for Collaboration Between Palaeography and the Neurosciences” in Textual Communities, Textual Selves: Essays in Dialogue with Brian Stock (2023).  His monograph-length essay, The Fifth-Century Patristic Page: The Implications of Space, Symbols, Numeration and Color for the History of Reading was in press at the time of the recording of this podcast.

Other recent articles include “Henri-Jean Martin and the Birth of the History of Reading: a Memoir,” in Histoire et Civilisation du Livre, 16 (2020); “The Twelfth Century Reception of Oriental Languages and the Graphic Mise en Page of Latin Vulgate Bibles in England” in Eyal Poleg’s and Laura Light’s collective volume, Form and Function of Latin Vulgate Bibles in the Late Medieval Bible (London, 2015), and “Jewish Liturgical Divisions of the Torah and English Chapter Divisions of the Vulgate,” in Pesher Nahum, Texts and Studies in Jewish History and Literature Presented to Norman Golb (Chicago, 2012).


The following approximates, in English, what ancient Roman readers would have experienced when opening a familiar codex (of Livy, for example) written in scriptura continua (continuous script with no spaces or punctuation). What is the experience like for you? Do you find yourself reading it aloud? Perhaps sounding it out in your head? Do you notice your lips moving sometimes? Are you longing for spaces between words? Do you welcome the freedom to phrase this as you wish?



(Bach’s Cello Suite #1 in G Major BMV 1007 Prelude (by Ivan Dolgunov) is courtesy of Jamendo Licensing.)