Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Search Challenge (8/19/15): Why all the crazy capital letters?

When in the course of human events... 

... it becomes necessary for one person to understand something strange, weird, or unexpected, they often turn to a Search Engine.  

And with that Sentence, I illustrate the Challenge for today.  

As you probably noticed, my use of capital letters was a bit odd in the preceeding couple of sentences.  These days, we understand what gets capitalized:  Initial letters of sentences, proper names, words for emphasis, and specialty terms (e.g., "Search Challenge").  

But this wasn't always the case.  If you look at just the text of the US Declaration of Independence from the website, you'll see: 

IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776.
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, 
When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Note where the capitals are in those few transcribed sentences:  "Declaration" and "State of America" (and most notably, not "united").  

Seems odd. 

But it gets even weirder when you look at one of the earliest copies of the Declaration (which I've marked up here to point out some of the interesting and odd typography). The capitals seem scattered almost at random:  

All of the f-shaped characters are, of course, the "Long S" character.  (It's interesting to note that "happiness" is spelt "happineſs." And yes, I used the correct character there.)  

But notice the pattern of capital letters.  In the version, "Events" isn't capitalized, but "Course" is!  On the other hand, in the earlier version, lots of other words get capitals (highlights in pink rectangles).  Course, Events, People, Political, Powers, Earth, Station... they're all capitalized.  

And then there are all of the little "connectors" that link two letters (some of which are pointed to by my red arrows).  What's up with that?  

This leads to today's Challenges: 

1.  What's the story with the Capital letters in the 18th century?  Were they just throwing in caps at random, or is there a Rhyme, and Reason to their capitalization?  
2.  Related: How / why / when did our practice of capitalization change to what it is currently?  (And, for extra credit, do other countries follow the same pattern of capitalization that we English-speaking types do?  For that fact, is the practice of capitalization the same in the US as in the UK?)  
3. What are those funny connectors between characters?  What are they called, what pairs of letters have them, and how can I get those on MY computer?

As is our Usual Practice, please let us know HOW you found the Answers in the comments below.  

Search on!  

(And, just to remind you: The "Danish optical instrument" Challenge is still open.  I have some new leads, but I'll write to you tomorrow about that.)  


  1. #1 I like the answer from Benjamin Franklin

  2. Sorry about the link issue. Here's a photo of the page taken from Benjamin Franklin's book "The Constitution of the United States, the Declaration of Independence"

    Query in Book Search [history of the capitalization of words "declaration of independence"]

    1. Rosemary -- If you look at that book carefully, you'll see it was published by Montecristo Publishing in 2011. The metadata for this book attributes it to Jefferson and Franklin, but it's pretty clearly a pastiche of documents from all over. The "misspellings" section, for instance, seems to be lifted entirely from the website, who seems to have written that section in 2007.

      Funny thing, the text seems accurate, but it's pretty clear that neither Franklin nor Jefferson wrote anything like that.

  3. #3 These strange double letters are called ligatures. I couldn't remember the name off the top (studied a bit of typography many years ago) so query [double letters typography]

    These are available using various fonts or you can use the codes shown in above link.

  4. Good day, Dr. Russell, fellow SearchResearchers


    [18th century capital letters]

    The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (David Crystal), emerging orthography in the 16th Century Mentions rules and different centuries.

    Says: "Americans still capitalized most nouns into the 19th century...and after Civil war ended.

    Some Characteristics of 18th century British-American Handwriting

    [capital letter history]

    Capitalization in different languages

    In the early decades of the eighteenth century, we get some sense that printers found this abundant capitalization unnecessary

    [18th century f writing ]
    [18th century fh writing]

    Rules of long S. Also mentions word "ligature" and typefaces of William Calson.

    [ligature typography]

    The most com­mon lig­a­tures in­volve the low­er­case f be­cause of its un­usual shape. Shows how to add them, making letters joined a simple glyph. Also help to give space in writing.

    Typographic ligature, Wikipedia

    Learn how to use ligatures properly

    [ United States noun capitalization decline]

    [capitalization rules united states through time]

    [capitalization changes United States]

    [historia letras mayusculas] and [lower case letters history]

    lower case history (in Spanish.) due to Charlemagne.

    [charlemagne lowercase letters]


    English and Spanish have some differences in capitalization.
    [difference capitalization English spanish]

  5. This is great ! Takes me back to Grade 8 where we had an actual print class [1958] with movable type and printing presses that whirred and clanked and spun and needed black sticky ink applied to the--(hmm, have no idea what it is called). I loved that class. One time a couple of Bad Boys Broke into the School and scrambled the type trays (again can;t recall the name). Pied ? Anyway I do recall them--the Bad Boys-- being sentenced to sort out the thousands of pieces right outside the Principal's Office. The joined up letters are ligatures--that at least I recall. All for Esthetics in Typography.


    jon tU

  6. grammar changes since 18th century]

    Random world capitalization

    English grammars have changed significantly from the eighteenth century to the present...Noah Webster also had a profound effect on English and American spelling (In 1806 published his first small dictionary)...In the early decades of the eighteenth century, we get some sense that printers found this abundant capitalization unnecessary...

    In 1712 Jonathan Swift writes to the Lord Treasurer, urging the formation of an English Academy to regulate usage as "many gross improprieties" could be found in the language of "even the best authors"Noah Webster establishes American standard spelling in his 1828 dictionary

  7. This site has some interesting facts & expressions such as where "watch your Ps andQs". Other terms jump out are "galleys" which are "the lines of type from the stick would be assembled in long columns (galleys) on the composing stone and proofed". The amount of work involved was incredible.

    Life in the old print shop

  8. Ran out of time but here is an interesting discussion

    1. What's the story with the Capital letters in the 18th century? Were they just throwing in caps at random, or is there a Rhyme, and Reason to their capitalization?

    [history of capital letters in english]

    jon tU

  9. I ran out of time too but this may be of interest: table of ligatures per typeface (only for the Latin script). I created this table because it isn't easy to find the answer to questions like "which typefaces have the ff ligature?". [Notice that my table isn't showing the correct glyphs, with all the ligatures, not only because Google Sheets has a limited choice of typefaces but also because I am on a PC, with no access to Mac typefaces.] The table was compiled with the help of FontForge and BabelMap.

    Verdana, the font on top of the font stack for most Blogspot blogs (including this one), is most likely the font you are reading right now (except if your very weird computer doesn't have Verdana). This font has only the following ligatures: ff ffi ffl fi fl.

    OpenType and Unicode are extremely complex. In my many many years of being an amateur typoholic, I still know but a very small fraction of the whole picture.
    Ligatures are not the same as digraphs (see for example this Unicode FAQ). Also, ligatures are not the only way of substituting a pair of glyphs or more for another pair. Really well designed fonts, like Lucas de Groot's Calibri, have huge GSUBs (Glyph Subtitution Tables) and the rules are terribly complex. For example, for every pair, precedence must be established, just like the order of operations in mathematics. Calibri has ligatures for st, tf and fi (plus a hundred more). If I write tfi in Colibri, the first two (tf) get connected with a ligature and the last i remains isolated. But if I write stf, although st could be connected, they're not; instead, the s is isolated and tf become connected.

    An excellent selection of typefaces with beautiful ligatures is here.

  10. seem to be afflicted with JōN ŧḫể UƙƞȫẘN̼ syndrome… disappearing/non-appearing submissions, the mysteries of the i*net…
    will try again with the post from the 19th — Woz mostly visuals.
    am trying no.❸ †††††††††††‡{ ☞ffffffeeſth ˈshēsh ☜ Ꮉ(Cherokee letter MA) } ƑƑ… this is tricky, all greek or latin to me ,still nibbling danish…
    &, on a 
    going non-textual/typographical
    sea urchin-ing pictogram (non-latin)
    …is this still in effect?