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So we all know that in English (and many other languages such as Spanish), lowercase letters are used more often than uppercase letters which are restricted to proper names, first letters of first words in a sentence, country names and a few others. Otherwise, lowercase letters are used. The question is, why can't we just use one case (either uppercase or lowercase) as in languages such as Arabic, Hebrew and many others using non-Latin scripts? How did lowercase letters develop?

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  • Different aspect (about numbers, rather than letters), but you may find this question on Graphic Design (and not least the answers) interesting. Commented Jul 9 at 16:54
  • In Arabic and Hebrew there are also two types of letters: the ones written at the word end are different from the ones written in the word's middle.
    – Anixx
    Commented Jul 9 at 19:19
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    Incidentally, “Why can’t we just use lowercase letters?” is a very different question to “How did lowercase letters develop?”. The latter is a matter of historical fact and is easily answerable; the former is a matter of opinion that can be easily answered with two opposing, cop-out answers: (1) we can, just look at how people write on Twitter, and (2) we can’t, because that’s how prescribed orthography works. Commented Jul 9 at 20:30
  • Wait why did my post lose a vote? Commented Jul 10 at 2:25

1 Answer 1

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Short answer: they really caught on with the invention of the printing press, hence "lowercase" and "uppercase"—they were literally the letters stored in the lower and upper cases. But they're not strictly necessary, they're just a convention.

Longer answer: they didn't exist for most of the Latin alphabet's history. In Roman times, there were "inscriptional" letters that look like our modern uppercase, used when carving on monuments and such, and "cursive" letters that don't look like anything recognizable to modern audiences, used when writing on paper.

text from Trajan's column

Roman cursive

Over the centuries, various other styles of writing came and went—uncial, blackletter, antiqua, italic—popular in different places at different times. But the one touchstone uniting them all was the Roman inscriptional style, because those stone monuments aren't going anywhere, and when you're writing in Latin (which most Europeans were up through the Renaissance), of course the Romans will be your ideal model.

Eventually a convention arose where the first letter of a text would be decorated ("illuminated") artistically, while the rest would be in plain, cheap, easy-to-write text. These illuminated letters would follow the Roman inscriptional model, since that's the ideal form everyone knows, and the rest of the text would be in whatever style is easiest for the scribe to write. (Hey, scribes aren't cheap!)

manuscript with decorated initial

So when the printing press caught on, this convention turned into "use Roman inscriptional letters for the start of a sentence, and your preferred style—antiqua, blackletter, or italic—for the rest". To facilitate this, printers would have two cases of type for each font, and store their Roman inscriptional letters in the upper one and their antiqua/blackletter/italic letters in the lower one. Thus, uppercase and lowercase.

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