The Knee-capping of intercapping

“Against Camel Case,” my attack on the intrusion of capital letters into the middles of words, is published in the 29 November 2009 issue of the New York Times Magazine. Herewith an online bibliographical supplement.

The Wikipedia entry on camel case is perhaps the most thorough treatment, and traces in detail the contribution of software programming to the trend. For those interested, wiki pages elsewhere also explain and critique the use of camel case in programming. As for journalistic treatments, William Safire tackled camel case in 1984 and again in 1997. New Scientist looked at the problem in 2007. That same year, font genius Jonathan Hoefler wondered if camel case could redeem itself by making web links newly legible. Among language mavens, Bill Walsh tried to draw the line in his 2000 book Lapsing into a Comma; some of his arguments appear in one of his online columns. He wasn’t able to, of course. You can also trace the camel’s depredations in back issues of the online magazine Copyediting.

In the course of researching modern camel case, I stumbled across the medieval phenomenon of run-together text, formally known as scriptura continua, and could not resist chasing it down the rabbit hole. The pioneer and dean of this paleographic subfield is Paul Saenger. As I explain in my article, Saenger believes that the introduction of space between words in the seventh and eighth centuries laid the psychic groundwork for modern individual consciousness—that most of the intellectual breakthroughs that Marshall McLuhan credited to Gutenberg are more properly to be attributed to monks in Ireland and England, who, because their native tongues of Gaelic and Saxon shared so little with the Romance language family, needed space between words to make Latin a little easier for them. Saenger first set forth this bold theory in “Silent Reading: Its Impact on Late Medieval Script and Society,” in the medieval-studies journal Viator, vol. 13 (1982), pp. 367–414, an article that, as far as I can tell, has never been digitized, not even by any of the for-pay scholarly databases. Saenger elaborated the theory and provided further evidence for it in his book Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading (Stanford University Press, 1997). Because the original journal article
is less heavily laden with technical descriptions of manuscript evidence, I as a layperson found it livelier and easier to digest. Saenger’s thesis is not uncontroversial! Reviews of his book in the scholarly literature either acclaimed it as a paradigm-busting breakthrough or disparaged it angrily—or both.

What is to be done? Here is a simple program of orthographic reclamation: When all the elements of a camel-case compound are words that could stand on their own, slice it open: Master Card, Price Waterhouse Coopers, Word Perfect. When some elements are letters or word fragments, sew it up and capitalize conventionally: Iphone, Ebay, Fedex. Proper names with hyphens can keep them (Jell-O), and new compounds can stand unaltered if their capitalization is traditional (Facebook). Humanism in orthography forever!

Update, Nov. 28: Michael Hartford lucidly lays out the case for camel case, at least in Irish and in programming languages.

7 thoughts on “The Knee-capping of intercapping”

  1. I’m glad to hear you referencing McLuhan, but I think he handles the middle ages in Galaxy, from 103 to 148, in a developmental way: “In antiquity and the Middle Ages reading was necessarily reading aloud”; and the hilarious “The medieval monks’ reading carrel was indeed a singing booth” (foreshadowing the telephone booth). I remember a funny story attributing the first silent reading to Aquinas, and thought it was in Galaxy, but it’s not: the story goes that Aquinas was the first monk to read silently, and that monks for miles around used to come to watch him do it. Alberto Manguel in his A History of Reading gives credit to Ambrose, who, according to Augustine, “was an extraordinary reader. ‘When he read,’ said Augustine, ‘his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still.’” In any case, today’s young readers, immersed in a whole language experience, still want to mouth the words, for reading is organic, or, as you said, humanistic, and probably begins with the very young reading lips. I realize this is only tangential to the camel issue, but I’m looking forward to checking out Space Between Words – (I also want to see that paper) from singing carrel to cubicle; if only we could read aloud again.

  2. Hi, Joe! Saenger retells the Augustine/Ambrose story, too, and argues that it suggests that silent reading was then exceptional. Silent reading wasn't unknown in medieval times, Saenger says, but descriptions of it usually involve either a reader who was trying to conceal the content of what he was reading or who was emotionally overwhelmed.

  3. I've seen some awfully old Torahs with spaces between words (no vowels, but spaces). I'm pretty sure that the Irish monks weren't involved in that one.

  4. Hi, Ari! You're right, of course. Many of the earliest scripts, including Hebrew, did leave space between words. It's a puzzle why later-born scripts didn't, because it's harder to read without it. Saenger hypothesizes that the trouble was introduced by ancient Greek, the first alphabet with vowels. Because Greek had vowels, it was possible to write it without word spaces and not have it turn into a cryptography problem, and people did so. The Romans had word spaces and then shed them, perhaps in imitation of the Greeks, with whom they were culturally smitten. Next thing anyone knew, centuries had gone by without any word spacing in Latin, which was restored, according to Saenger, in 7th/8th-century Ireland and England, as mentioned in the article.

    In my first draft, I wrote the story with all these zigs and zags and hopping abouts: that is, there were spaces in Hebrew, then there weren't in Greek, then they came back in Latin. But my first draft was 50 percent over my word count! So I had to chop out a lot of things, and decided to start the story of word spacing with Greek "doing without" spaces, which I hoped would at least suggest that there had been word spaces before. Journalism, alas, cannot recapitulate paleography. (That's meant to be a kind of pun on the ontogeny/phylogeny thing, but it doesn't quite work, does it.)

  5. I think your real culprit here is trademark law. You can't trademark common words like "Word" and "Perfect," but you can trademark the neologism "WordPerfect."

  6. I don't understand the comparison between camel case and lack of word spacing. In most camel cased words, like Powerpoint, ipod, or Astroturf, it would be a single compound word no matter the capitalization. Camel casing actually does the work of spacing by showing you where the next word begins in the compound word making it easier to read. I'm afraid your argument makes little sense.

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