Is it a common feature for a writing system to include a capitalized variant of itself?

What is the purpose of capitalization in itself? Is it ever truly necessary for comprehension?

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    You might have more luck if you broaden your search to languages that systematically alternate letter forms in any way. That would capture Hebrew and Arabic positional letter forms, for example. It could be interesting to do some deep/surface structure analysis of graphemes... – Luke Sawczak Mar 23 '18 at 3:17

Case is by no means universal; it is found in scripts descended from Greek (but not most other branches of the phylogenetical tree which is rooted in Egyptian hieroglyphs; e.g. Arabic and Hebrew, as well as the Indic family, do not have case) and a few other scripts.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Letter_case#Bicameral_script mentions Armenian, Coptic, and of course Cyrillic and Latin, and a few others (though apparently Cherokee should not be there!)

Mayan, cuneiform, and East Asian scripts do not have case, so it's really not something you would postulate as a typical or expected feature by any means. We can thus emphatically conclude that this feature is by no means necessary; though it is indeed thought to improve legibility in the systems which have this distinction.


The convention to use capitals at the beginning of a sentence seems to have developed from the practice of writing a decorative initial letter at the beginning of a script in medieval European writing, and have then been loaned back to Greek, but I could not quickly find a source with better details.

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    Cherokee does not have case. It's just that certain Cherokee letters look a bit like certain Latin ones. – OmarL Mar 22 '18 at 15:28
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    It's not commonly thought of as a case distinction, but I would say there is a strong parallel with katakana and hiragana: katakana is a more "square" form like square capitals, while hiragana arose from a cursive form, just like minuscule did. Like capitals and minuscule, they were simply used in different contexts at first, but later specialized to each be used for only certain parts of sentences. – LjL Mar 22 '18 at 15:32
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    Is there actually good data about the legibility of all-uppercase vs. mixed-case text that would tell us which one would be more legible to readers that are fully accustomed to seeing one or the other? My impression was that most existing studies that show that mixed-case text is more legible don't necessarily indicate whether that is because of some inherent property of it (like having ascenders and descenders, one factor that is commonly theorized to contribute to legibility in text written in the Latin alphabet) or because literate readers are more accustomed to reading mixed-case text. – brass tacks Mar 22 '18 at 16:14
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    @Wilson : Cherokee indeed sometimes uses a capital letter vs small letter. Some details in this unicode proposal, which was implemented in Unicode 8.0 – Frédéric Grosshans Mar 22 '18 at 21:49
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    @tripleee I would say that in current practice, katakana is used more the way we use italics (for emphasis, foreign loans, scientific names) than the way "capitals" are used. But I am not surprised that a letter case distinction developing independently would come up with distinct usage criteria. The parallel is also with the fact that every katakana has a hiragana equivalent, and usually, those are descended from the same original glyph, but written in different styles (many katakana glyphs don't look a lot like the hiragana equivalents today, but does 'r' look like 'R', or 'g' like 'G'?). – LjL Mar 23 '18 at 17:59

A supplement to tripleee's answer: Although most Brahmi-descendant scripts in India and South-East Asia do not have separate upper-case letters, Javanese does have 7 letters that are used instead of ordinary letters in all positions (initial, medial, final) in certain proper names. They are called “aksara murda” or “huruf kapital”. You can find them here: https://id.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aksara_Murda (in Indonesian only).

  • Interesting, although could you explain the difference of using these letters in each position? – apat Mar 23 '18 at 7:25
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    The principle is that 7 of the Javanese phonemes have two alternative signs, “ordinary” and “special”. In proper names all of the “ordinary” letters are replaced by “special” letters, regardless of their position in the word. Historically the “special” letters are Sanskrit aksaras that are not needed for Javanese sounds, for example the voiced aspirate “bha”. The situation is thus different from the lower case and upper case in Latin-based scripts, where the two cases are historically different forms of the same letter. – fdb Mar 23 '18 at 9:46
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    That seems to be a way in which the writing system mirrors spoken Javanese politeness levels. – jlawler Mar 23 '18 at 18:12
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    @jlawler. Yes, at least at a synchronic level. Historically they would have been used in the correct spelling of Sanskrit loan words and names. – fdb Mar 23 '18 at 19:04

Just picking up on part of the original question - the purpose of capitalization. It is not "necessary" for comprehension, but it does make comprehension a lot quicker. Reading texts and inscriptions which lack capitals and spaces between words is a very slow process.

Mediaeval scribes used capitals to mark the start of sentences and chapters partly because their religious works were read frequently. In addition to the parts used in the Mass, there was the widespread custom that one monk or nun would read a devotional work aloud to their fellows during meals. They also liked capitals for important words such as saints' names etc.

Capitalization really caught on with the arrival of printing. Printed books were meant to be sold, so they were constantly re-designed to make them more reader-friendly. Hence spaces between words, punctuation marks, and the standardisation of letter forms.

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