The Roman Alphabet

Christianity brought the Roman alphabet to Scandinavia. In the beginning, this alphabet was used for writing Latin, the language of the Roman Catholic Church. In Norway, however, the vernacular (Old Norse) was used in writing prior to 1100, and this practice was taken up in Iceland shortly afterwards. The reason for this was that Norway and Iceland received Christianity from England and Ireland, where the vernaculars (Anglo-Saxon and Gaelic) were habitually used in writing. In Sweden and Denmark, where German influence dominated, Latin remained the main written language until the 13th and 14th centuries.

The Roman alphabet was mainly used in parchment manuscripts that could be bound into large books. Through the dissemination of book manuscripts, an advanced written literary culture developed, primarily within churches and monasteries, but also among worldly administrators attached to royal and local chanceries (where the scribes were most often ecclesiastical people). In some locations, however, above all in Iceland, writing and reading skills developed among lay people, particularly those from the chieftain class, quite early. Written literature was often of a secular nature (law texts were an important genre). The expansion of trade during the late Middle Ages, where foreign and, in particular, North German merchants within the Hanseatic League played a significant role, led to a democratization of writing and reading. This development accelerated when printing was introduced in Denmark in 1482 and in Sweden in 1483. From the 16th century onward, the use of written language steadily and intensively grew, although it remained dominated by religious and ecclesiastical texts.

The Lutheran Reformation led to the growth of vernacular-based written languages such as Danish (in Denmark, Norway, and the Faroe Islands) and Swedish (in Sweden and Finland). Standardized orthographies of these languages gradually developed, promoted by the printing presses and other early agents of standardization. Only around 1800 did schools assume a chief role in the dissemination of reading and writing skills among the population, and by the end of the 19th century, Scandinavian countries had achieved general literacy.

The script used in early Scandinavian printing was the so-called Gothic script. In Sweden, however, Roman characters were in use by the 18th century. They appeared somewhat later in Iceland, and only by 1900 in Denmark and Norway, where the Gothic and Roman scripts existed side by side for quite some time. Despite the appearance of both scripts, the Roman characters retained an elite position while the Gothic was reserved for texts read by common people, mostly religious texts, although later supplemented by educational, vocational, and other literature in the wake of the Enlightenment in the 18th century. The Gothic and Roman scripts are, however, structurally identical; only the shape of the characters differs.

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