Printing Tips: A History of Lettering

The definition of writing is everything pictured, arranged, or drawn that can be turned into some type of spoken account. Writing was never actually invented but grew out of various origins at different places throughout history. Even primitive people had languages and some form of writing such as courier staffs, pieces of wood, and stone momentos used as account sheets.

Early writing was mostly pictures and in it's simplest state it could be understood my almost anyone. Picture writing, or pictographs, are open to various interpretations depending on who is looking at them. Out of picture writing came the ideographic stage in which every word, object, or abstract conception is represented by a different picture. This type of writing was used by the Chinese, Egyptians, and the Sumerians. The next step before the creation of the phonetic alphabet was the use of syllable writing with symbols called phonographs. While the Egyptians never quite achieved it, this was the type of writing that led to the phonetic alphabet. The process of the history of writing is similar in most cultures.

The Alphabet

The biggest development in the history of all writing has to be the invention of what is called the phonetic alphabet. Three different stages of writing were used at the same time, including ideographs, phonographs, and the alphabet. Alphabets were then passed on from one culture to another, which allowed each to build on the older version passed on to them. The final alphabet that came about from this passing is referred to as the phonetic alphabet. Early alphabets were stylized gradually and then simplified by scribes but can always be traced back through time to a picture.

The Modern Alphabet

The modern alphabet is believed to have come from the Greek who are thought to have borrowed it from the North Semitic writing system which is a Phoenician style. When one compares the Greek and Phoenician styles of writing, it is easy to see the similarities. With an alphabet consisting of 24 letters, the Greek were able to provide an alphabet that was suitable for all Indo-European languages. This was possible because the Greek provided definite symbols for vowels. At first, there were numerous Greek alphabets but the Ionian version was made the standard in 403 BC.

Roman Capitals

The most well known Roman Capitals were the inscription of letters cut into stone at the base of the Trojan column in 113 BC. The Roman alphabet took at least seven centuries to develop and did not contain the letters, J, U, and W. While the classic Roman alphabet was used there was also an everyday hand that was able to be written much faster and with far less care.

Square Capitals

The Roman capital were used mainly for brush and inscription work but a pen variety was available and was known as the square capitals. Square capitals were painstakingly drawn and writing any type of manuscript was a very slow process and therefore only used in very important work.


Uncial lettering was used by the Greeks from as early as the 3rd century BC, and it is thought that these letters were borrowed by the Romans and given the name uncial which is thought to translate to “roman inch in height”. It has been suggested that the uncial style of lettering was developed at the time of the Emperor Constantine as a book hand to replace square capitals and rustic writing.

Carlovingian Minuscule

Carlovingian writing was named after Carl the Great and is considered one of the greatest developments in the history of writing. The King of Franks, Charlemagne was the main motivator for this writing. Carlovingian minuscule was developed into a beautiful, legible, and quick to write style of lettering that took up very little space.

Current Cursive

As with any type of writing there are a variety of styles used. Towards the end of the 15th century, cursive humanistica became an important book hand. The greatest importance of cursive humanistica is its position as the basis for cursive and italic styles of writing.

Writing, or lettering has a very interesting and long history. Throughout time there have been numerous different styles of writing and lettering, from pictures to words, that continue to evolve and change today.

  • Phonetic Alphabet – A chart listing out the NATO phonetic alphabet which has replaced many versions of the phonetic alphabet.
  • Alphabet History – An in-depth history of the alphabet and how it has evolved and changed since its invention.
  • Hieroglyphs – Some information on Egyptian hieroglyphs including writing, numbers, fractions, and resources.
  • History of Writing - Some great information on the history of writing including charts and pictures.