Imagine a World Where Everyone Typed in CAPS LOCK

By Sean Carroll | March 29, 2010 8:57 am

There used to be a Twitter account called Best of Wikipedia — it was a wonderful source for quirky things you might not have chanced upon in your normal browsing. Alas, it’s been quiet since November, so we’re left to our own devices. For some reason or another I was reading about Scholasticism, the dominant approach to teaching and learning in medieval Europe. Its early days came to pass during the Carolingian Renaissance in the late 700′s under Charlemagne.

Besides uniting Central Europe, Charlemagne was also a patron of learning, and used his influence to bring scholars from across the continent to his court. Most importantly, he recognized that the decline of literacy and the splintering of Latin into mutually incomprehensible regional dialects caused difficulties for the administration of an empire, so he ordered that every abbey in his domain should start a school. The idea of widespread schooling was a novel one at the time, and the long-term impact of this decision is probably incalculable. Sure, most of the scholarship may have been devoted to the interpretation of classic texts rather than the production of new knowledge, but you have to think that all that learning helped lay the groundwork for the eventual climb out of the Dark Ages. Start people thinking, and you never know where they will go.

Alcuin So I was especially fascinated to read about Alcuin of York, one of Charlemagne’s greatest scholars. He was a respected teacher in Northumbria before being brought to court, where he had an enormous effect on the scholarship — establishing the liberal arts (the trivium and quadrivium) as the basis for the curriculum, and convincing Charlemagne not to put pagans to death if they refused to convert. He also produced a textbook of math problems with solutions, from which we learn that medieval word problems were more colorful than those we have today — these include the problem of the three jealous husbands and the problem of the wolf, goat and cabbage.

But it’s clear to me what Alcuin’s greatest achievement really was: he’s the guy who invented lower case letters. Can you imagine a world in which everything was written in ALL CAPS? Every time we read a crazy person ranting on the internet, we should give thanks to Alcuin that not everybody sounds like that.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Humanity, Words
  • http://www.facebook.com/buffalodavid Buffalodavid

    Sure, lower case is good, but the real fun starts with italics. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italic_type

    Ship and Dinosaur names, Latin phrases , and my favorite : Emphasis.

  • Matt T

    I’ve had to adapt to all caps while writing, as my hand writing is horrible. I doubt that any one assumes that I am ranting, but I’m very sure that my hand writing doesn’t sound like I’m ranting. Letters on a page, either lower or upper case, rarely make a noise.

  • Lonely Flower

    I think it is a matter of get used to it. If there were no lower case, you wouldn’t see all caps as ranting.
    In Arabic for example, there is no lower case letters, but I don’t know how we rant, may be we use English:)

  • DamnYankees

    Pretty easily, actually. I can write in two alphabets which don’t have the upper/lower case division, and it’s not really hard at all.

    The real guy we need to thank is the guy who invented putting spaces in between word. That’s still a problem with Chinese for crying out loud!

  • http://scienceblogs.com/sunclipse/ Blake Stacey

    medieval word problems were more colorful than those we have today

    Oh, I dunno. Apparently, Feynman used to give his mathematical-methods class at Cornell word problems which began like, “Consider an atomic bomb of radius r, density of neutrons n . . .” That would wake me up at the start of the exam period.

  • hmm

    “If there were no lower case, you wouldn’t see all caps as ranting.”

    “Pretty easily, actually. I can write in two alphabets which don’t have the upper/lower case division, and it’s not really hard at all.”

    … I think you’re taking a light hearted column too seriously.

  • spyder

    CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW? WHAT ABOUT NOW??

  • Craig

    My quick reading of wikipedia suggests that this is wrong. The Samaritans had lower case letters and some Greek texts dated to 835 also had lower case letters.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lower_case#History
    This could be wrong too I suppose.

  • Charon

    835 is after Charlemagne (and Alcuin). (I’m assuming you mean 835 CE, since you didn’t say BCE.)

    Although I would be curious when Greek lowercase came about… their lowercase letters are more distinct from Latin characters than the uppercase.

  • DamnYankees

    “… I think you’re taking a light hearted column too seriously.”

    I pivoted to lightheartedness with the word spacing thing!

    “My quick reading of wikipedia suggests that this is wrong. The Samaritans had lower case letters and some Greek texts dated to 835 also had lower case letters.”

    I assume Sean is talking about the Latin alphabet.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    lol

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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