AskDefine | Define paleography

Dictionary Definition

paleography n : the study of ancient forms of writing (and the deciphering of them)

User Contributed Dictionary



paleo- + -graphy



  1. Ancient forms of writing, as in a manuscript or document.
  2. The study of ancient forms of writing.


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Extensive Definition

Palaeography (British) or paleography (American) (from the Greek palaiós, "old" and graphein, "to write") is the study of ancient handwriting, independent of the language (Koine Greek, Classical Latin, Medieval Latin, Old English, etc.), preserved in papyrus, parchment, paper, wood, waxed tablet, etc.
Palaeography is in many ways a prerequisite for philology, and it tackles two main difficulties: first, since the style of a single alphabet has evolved constantly (Carolingian minuscule, Gothic, etc.), it is necessary to know how to decipher the individual characters. Second, scribes often used many abbreviations, usually so that they could write the text more quickly, and sometimes to save space, so the palaeographer must know how to interpret them. Knowledge about individual letter-forms, ligatures, punctuation, and abbreviations, enables the palaeographer to read the text as the scribe intended it to be read.
The first time the term "palaeography" was used was perhaps in 1703 by Bernard de Montfaucon, a Benedictine monk. During the 19th century palaeography fully separates from the science of diplomatics. Wilhelm Wattenbach and Leopold Delisle greatly contributed to this separation with their studies between the relationship to the human hand and writing. Their efforts were mainly the directed at Reconstiting "the ductus" i.e. the movement of the pen in forming letter, and to establish a genealogy of writing based on the historical developments of its forms.
The palaeographer must know the language of the texts, the abbreviations used, and the various styles of handwriting. Knowledge of writing materials is essential to the ancient study of handwriting and the identification of the periods in which they are written.. The fundamental work of the palaeographer is to decipher the writings of the past and to assign them a date and a place of origin. This is why the palaeographer must take into account the style and formation of the manuscript or text.

Indian palaeography

North Indian palaeography

South Indian palaeography

The earliest attested form of writing in South India is inscriptions found in caves, associated with the Chalukya and Chera dynasties. These are in variants of what is known as the Cave character, and their script differs from the Northern version in being more angular. Most of the modern scripts of South India have evolved from this script, with the exception of Vatteluttu, whose exact origins are unknown, and Nandinagari, which is a variant of Devanagari that developed due to later Northern influence.

Latin palaeography


See the following articles:

Middle Ages

Prior to the time of Charlemagne several parts of Europe had their own handwriting style. His rule over a large part of the continent provided an opportunity to unify these writing styles in the hand called Carolingian minuscule. Simplistically speaking, the only scripts to escape this unification were the Visigothic (or Mozarabic), which survived into the twelfth or thirteenth century, the Beneventan, which was still being written in the middle of the sixteenth, and the one that continues to be used in traditional Irish handwriting, which has been in severe decline since the early twentieth century and is now almost extinct (the printed form was abolished by the Irish government in the 1950s).
In the twelfth century Carolingian minuscule underwent a change in its appearance to bold and broken Gothic letter-forms. This style remained predominant with some regional variants until the fifteenth century when the humanistic scripts revived a version of Carolingian minuscule and it spread from the Italian Renaissance all over Europe.

Modern period

These humanistic scripts are the base for the antiqua and the handwriting forms in western and southern Europe. In Germany and Austria, the Kurrentschrift was rooted in the cursive handwriting of the later Middle Ages. With the name of the calligrapher Ludwig Sütterlin, this handwriting counterpart to the blackletter typefaces was abolished by Hitler in 1941. After World War II it was taught as alternative script in schools only in some areas until the 1970s; it is no longer being taught.

Further reading

Western palaeography

  • Bernhard Bischoff, Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, 1989.
  • E. A. Lowe, Codices Latini Antiquiores: A Palaeographical Guide to Latin Manuscripts Prior to the Ninth Century, Clarendon Press, 1972.
  • Sir Edward Maunde Thompson, An Introduction to Greek and Latin Palaeography Clarendon Press, 1912.

Indian palaeography

  • Elements of South-Indian Palæography, from the Fourth to the Seventeenth Century A.D., Being an Introduction to the Study of South-Indian Inscriptions and MSS.
  • The Palæography of India/Bhāratīya Prācīna Lipimālā


paleography in Belarusian: Палеаграфія
paleography in Bulgarian: Палеография
paleography in Catalan: Paleografia
paleography in Chuvash: Палеографи
paleography in Czech: Paleografie
paleography in Welsh: Palaeograffeg
paleography in Danish: Palæografi
paleography in German: Paläografie
paleography in Spanish: Paleografía
paleography in French: Paléographie
paleography in Classical Chinese: 古文書
paleography in Croatian: Paleografija
paleography in Indonesian: Paleografi
paleography in Icelandic: Handritafræði
paleography in Italian: Paleografia
paleography in Hebrew: פאליאוגרפיה
paleography in Latin: Palaeographia
paleography in Latvian: Paleogrāfija
paleography in Luxembourgish: Paleographie
paleography in Dutch: Paleografie
paleography in Japanese: 古文書
paleography in Norwegian: Paleografi
paleography in Polish: Paleografia
paleography in Portuguese: Paleografia
paleography in Romanian: Paleografie
paleography in Russian: Палеография
paleography in Slovak: Paleografia
paleography in Slovenian: Paleografija
paleography in Finnish: Paleografia
paleography in Swedish: Paleografi
paleography in Turkish: Paleografi
paleography in Ukrainian: Палеографія
paleography in Volapük: Vönapenav
paleography in Chinese: 古文字学

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

IPA, ITA, Initial Teaching Alphabet, International Phonetic Alphabet, alphabet, alphabetics, autography, bowwow theory, calligraphy, chirography, comparative linguistics, criticism, cryptanalysis, cryptography, cryptology, derivation, descriptive linguistics, diagnostics, dialectology, dingdong theory, epigraphy, etymology, exegetics, fist, futhark, glossematics, glossology, glottochronology, glottology, grammar, graphanalysis, graphemics, graphology, graphometry, hand, handwriting, hermeneutics, historical linguistics, language study, letters, lexicography, lexicology, lexicostatistics, linguistic geography, linguistic science, linguistics, literary criticism, manuscript, mathematical linguistics, metoposcopy, morphology, morphophonemics, oneirology, pathognomy, pencraft, penmanship, penscript, philology, phonetics, phonology, physiognomics, physiognomy, psycholinguistics, runic alphabet, script, scription, scrive, semantics, semeiology, semeiotics, sociolinguistics, structuralism, stylography, syllabary, symptomatology, syntactics, textual criticism, transformational linguistics, tropology, writing system
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