Uppercase & Lowercase

The terms we use for different letterforms come from how they were stored.

In the beginning, there were capital letters (majuscule letters). The written languages of the Ancient Greeks and Romans were both in all caps. The Roman square capitals and the Roman calligraphic script eventually generated Uncial script. Uncial was used between the 4th and 8th centuries and continued the style of all caps. Around the late 8th century however, the Benedictine monks of Corbie Abbey in France began using a new style of writing which became the Carolingian script. Carolingian could be written faster than Uncial script because it used a new style of letters: lowercase (minuscule letters). What this meant was that some European countries now had two different styles for each letter of the alphabet. These different letterforms meant the same things, and were pronounced the same ways, but they looked different.

While these letterforms started off isolated to their respective styles of writing, over the centuries they began to commingle. This merger of letterforms was partially inspired by the decorative initial caps in illuminated manuscripts. It wasn’t until the 14th century that grammatical rules began to define when to use a majuscule letterform in otherwise minuscule text (such as capitalizing the start of a sentence, or someone’s name, etc).

Uncial script on the left (a portion taken from The Book of Kells) compared to Carolingian script on the right.

Majuscule minuscule, uppercase lowercase

Johannes Gutenberg introduced the printing press to Europe in 1439. The printing press allowed individual metal letters to be assembled together to print information. All of these metal letters were organized into trays/drawers/cases. The majuscule letters were used less often and so were placed higher up. The minuscule letters were used the most and were placed the closest to the worker setting the type. Because of their position these higher elevated majuscule letters became known as “uppercase” while the easier to reach minuscule letters became “lowercase.”

A 20th century type drawer/case.

An explanation of uppercase and lowercase letters and how these terms originated with the printing press.

Added bonus: Not all languages have uppercase and lowercase letters. Unicase languages include Arabic, Hebrew, and Georgian to name a few. That said, while Arabic doesn’t have the capitalization rules that Latin derived languages now have, Arabic does utilize the IMFI writing system. Based on the position of the letter in a word or sentence (initial, medial, final, or isolated), one of four different shapes are used. So instead of the two letter form variations that the Roman alphabet has Arabic has four but for different reasons.

Indiana Jones and the Letter “J”

The letter “J” was the last letter added to the alphabet and probably wouldn’t have been part of the crusaders’ trap.

In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade Indy has to retrieve the Holy Grail in order to save his father. Between him and the Grail however are a series of obstacles constructed by knights of the First Crusade. One of these trials is a floor with stones individually marked with various letters of the alphabet. He is “to proceed in the footsteps of the word” and step only on the floor tiles that spell the name of God. The name of God in this case is Jehovah and Indy makes the mistake of stepping on the letter “J” whereby the floor crumbles. He then remembers that in the Latin alphabet, the first letter in the name Jehovah is actually an “I”.

Jehovah’s arrival into the lexicon first appears in the 13th century, but it was originally spelled “Iehouah” with a capital “i”, the letter “J” having not been invented yet. This also means that Jesus’s name wasn’t “Jesus” in his lifetime. In Hebrew he was Yeshua or Yehoshua, or in Aramaic he was Isho or Yeshu. For a long time the letter “J” was just a fancy way of writing the letter “I”. It wasn’t until 1524 that Italian grammarian Gian Giorgio Trissino proposed separating the two letter forms to become two separate letters with two separate sounds.

This raises a typographical problem with the film. The letter “J” didn’t become a part of the alphabet until after 1524 (and in so doing became the last letter added to our alphabet), a few hundred years after the first crusade which was from 1096-1099. So we have to conclude that either:

  • the trap wasn’t built for more than 400 years after the first crusade, or …
  • every now and then the immortal knight of the Grail updates the trap to include new letter forms over the centuries to keep the trap up to date with the times, or …
  • the writers of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade didn’t do much type research and incredibly audiences were willing to overlook such a flagrant error.