Why do lowercase letters look very different than their uppercase counterparts?

majuscule, minuscule, bodoni, r, greek, latinTake a moment and open the last email you wrote. It’s okay. We’ll wait. Now imagine if you had to write it out on paper, not with a ballpoint pen, but with a pen that you had to dip into a bowl of ink every few words. And make sure not to drip any ink on that expensive parchment. Is your wrist hurting yet?

Medieval scribes spent all day, every day transcribing text. As they were going along, writing perfectly and quickly, the shape of the letters slowly changed to be more efficient. This transformed the alphabet during the Middle Ages. It even gave us capital and lowercase letters. Curious about why we have upper and lowercase letters in the first place? They are technically called majuscule and minuscule. Learn more here.

But why do some of the lowercase letters look so different from their capital equivalents? Most of the letters fit neatly together: C c, F f, J j, H h, L l, X x, etc. But some of them barely look related, like R and r.

Well, the contemporary English alphabet is a direct descendant of the Latin alphabet, which in turn inherited some characteristics from Greek. The Greek alphabet did have lowercase letters, and some of the modern English lowercase letters are directly related to their Greek equivalents. For example, both the uppercase and the lowercase letter A look very similar to the Greek letter Alpha.

r rotunda, minuscule, majusculeBut the Greek alphabet only had 24 letters, and the Latin alphabet had just 21. Obviously, we’ve toyed with them since then. The letter R, for instance, is related to the Greek letter, Rho, which looks like our letter P. (P is not related to this letter, but to the letter Pi, which you may remember from high school geometry). Anyway, back to the slippery letter R. In the Latin alphabet, the R acquired its modern uppercase shape: R. The lowercase r, though, was still figuring itself out.

Those medieval scribes tried to write as quickly and efficiently as possible.  They developed a lowercase version of the letter r that looked a lot like its uppercase equivalent, pictured here. It was called the r rotunda. When writing, the scribes would place that letter next to letters like o, b and p that already had the left staff of the capital letter R, so the lowercase r, then, would look just like its uppercase letter.

Obviously, though, we don’t still use a lowercase r that looks like that. At this same time, another lowercase r was competing with the r rotunda. Greek letters were often written in what we’d call cursive, with the end of one letter going into the beginning of the next. From 100 to 300 A.D., Latin scribes began writing Latin in a Greek style. It was called New Roman Cursive. The New Roman Cursive version of the r is very similar to the lowercase r with which we are familiar. This r looks like part of the lower staff of the capital R and can be easily distinguished from other letters and – most importantly – written quickly.

Are there other letters that you’d like to learn about?