Tag Archives: letterform

Lettering as sweet as the dew on the vine, so it is

You can still find the uncial style of writing every March on Saint Patrick’s Day cards and furniture-sale advertisements. Uncial style looks Irish. It was popular with the Irish monks.


The old-style square-cap Latin was written in all capital letters, as if the ‘caps lock’ button were on the whole time. It reads like you’re being yelled at (maybe that was the idea).

In Alcuin’s day, monks wrote on parchment. Parchment isn’t cheap and all-caps takes up a lot of space. The monks learned to conserve space by making the first letter of a sentence a big capital letter and writing the rest of the sentence in small letters. The small letters were only an inch high—an ‘uncia’ in Latin—so this style of writing is called ‘uncial’ (OON se al).*

Uncials. Look how round they are compared to the Latin square-caps.

The small letters are called miniscules. The monks formed them with pens, so they became more round in contrast to the chiseled-in-stone letters of the old days. The miniscules grew tails, like ‘d’ or ‘p’ which extended up or down. They look different from capital letters.

The big capital letters are called maguscules MAH-juss-kyoolz). In time the maguscules became large versions of the miniscules.

This is the style Alcuin updated to Carolingian and promoted across the Holy Roman Empire. Latin translations of Arabic texts would be written in the Carolingian style. Alcuin dreamed up an additional feature: punctuation. Thanks to Alcuin you can tell when sentences end and new ones begin because they’re marked with a period. You can tell if the writer is asking a question, because there’s a question mark at the end. I’m personally grateful for the M-dash—which I probably overuse.

*…or maybe the monks shouldn’t be taken too literally. ‘Uncial’ may have been their jokey way of saying the letters are small.

I wanted to get a take on uncials from a calligrapher. Here’s that wonderful lady who makes her own ink. She says it’s St Jerome’s fault they’re called uncials. She shows you how to write them:
You weirdos who’ve been loyally following this blog will no doubt remember this post:

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.

Guest blogger: Ilene Winn-Lederer

It would be madness to cover the Hebrew alphabet without asking my pal (and Western Civ User’s Guide Irregular) Ilene Winn-Lederer to contribute some thoughts and a few examples of her fantastic calligraphy using Hebrew letterforms. Click on the links to view more of her work. Thanks, Ilene!

John: Since you will likely cover the technical origins of Hebrew from its Paleo-Aramaic roots to modern usage, here are my personal thoughts on my use of the language in my work.

First, I find the old and new forms of the alefbet fascinating for the following reasons:

I did not grow up in a religious home nor experience a formal Hebrew school education. Coming at the Hebrew culture/language from a mostly outsiders’ perspective, I did not speak it at all but learned to read it gradually through native speakers and informal classes through the years. Ironically, because my grandparents generation came to the US from Eastern Europe, Yiddish was my first language as a child. Anyway, I viewed Hebrew letters as simply beautiful art forms with great design potential. My mystical understanding of the alefbet also came from personal informal studies/classes.

Rimmonim means pomegranate

On that note, here are thoughts from my ‘Alchymy of Alphabets’ collection at my web gallery:
While there have been myriad renditions of the Hebrew alphabet throughout history on stone, carved in wood, crafted in metal, drawn in manuscripts, books, art and calligraphy, I’ve rarely seen any that explore these beautiful letterforms outside the box of their traditional appearance. In 2008, for my portfolio with PaperRoad Art Licensing LLC, I designed a group of illustrated English alphabets whose theme defined the shape of each letter. This year, I’ve decided to work that concept into the Hebrew alphabet. With identification in Hebrew and English, Abundance weaves some of the abundant flora of Israel into the letters that brought all into being.

Finally, here are links to prints available from that gallery: http://www.magiceyegallery.com/GalleryPage.aspx?id=11

Also, my Hebrew calligraphy appears on a collection of holiday greeting cards at: https://m.greetingcarduniverse.com/search/go?w=Ilene%20winn%20lederer&ts=m

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Reading & Writing.