Just recently, I believed that spaces between words were first invented with the Carolingian minuscule, invented by the English scholar Alcuin of York. As I just discovered, spacing wasn't first ever used with Alcuin's Carolingian minuscule. Apparently, before Alcuin, Irish monks in the early Middle Ages had (re?)invented spacing between words.

However, I then came across this academic monograph which said that one of the reasons Irish monks developed spacing is because they were copying Syriac Bible's, and these already had spacing between words (the source was Paul Saenger's Space between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading though I have no access to the relevant part of this monograph to check). I'm aware that Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic. Suddenly, this information is starting to get a bit confusing and the sources I'm looking for aren't completely clear.

So I wanted to ask: what was the first alphabet to actually use spacing between words? I'm not talking about word-separation with points and interpuncts, rather, the practice of placing an empty space to separate two words (Carolingian minuscule being an example).

I'd also be thankful to be pointed to the scholarly literature on exactly this question.

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    Are you talking about space between words? Or are you talking about kerning between letters within a word? – user6726 Dec 2 at 0:23
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    No kerning. Spacing between letters like that which was introduced in Carolingian minuscule. – Korvexius Dec 2 at 5:22
  • @Korvexius Could you clarify about the place in your question in which you say you're asking about "actual blank spaces between words"? – b a Dec 2 at 10:14
  • Wikipedia says "spaces between words became standard in Carolingian minuscule" which is what I'd expect. It doesn't make sense to ask who invented spacing between letters - all older writing systems had them. It would make sense to ask which was the first script to be written entirely connected like Devanagari is. – curiousdannii Dec 2 at 12:17
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    Sadly, I got no answers to this question on History SE. Admittedly it was a little ambitious and not clearly worded... – Luke Sawczak Dec 3 at 6:24
up vote 10 down vote accepted

If we allow abjads, Imperial Aramaic in Aramaic script was one of the first to consistently use spacing, from the mid-7th century BCE. This might have been due to the influence of Akkadian cuneiform orthography.

It is true that cursive Hebrew on the ostraca tend to omit dots, and we see here a simplification of dots to spaces the more cursive the writing is. However, cursive Aramaic tended to simplify its spaces to nothing (scriptio continua), which then became standard in Phoenician (and hence Greek, Etruscan, Roman etc.).

A clear example of whitespace for word division can be seen in this 5th century Aramaic ostracon probably found in Egypt. Later on, many of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Hebrew use whitespace.

Note that spacing pre-dates the introduction of special final (plus initial and isolated) forms in the Hebrew alphabet.

The link between Classical Syriac and Imperial Aramaic is well-established, with the former language being the 1st century CE formal version of the latter. The use of whitespace in Classical Syriac Bibles such as the Peshitta is thus not surprising.

It's interesting that the book you refer to mentions a link between Syriac Bibles and Latin Bibles copied in Ireland - I'd like to see more evidence of this claim.

The usual explanation (which Saenger does also mention in his book) is that the Irish, English and Welsh monks of the late 7th century CE were more aware of the fact that the text of the Latin Vulgate was not vernacular to them than their continental counterparts. Hence they were more careful about making sure that all the inflections found in the Latin text were read aloud correctly, and spacing was found to aid that. As continental Romance-speakers felt their language was simply the modern version of that in the Vulgate, it was easier for them to mentally process Latin in scriptio continua than for their "insular" counterparts.

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