Give Now

A Moment of Science

Silent Reading

In the Western World, silent reading has only been around for approximately a thousand years.

Spaces between words is a relatively recent innovation.

Did you know that silent reading is a relatively recent invention? That’s not a joke or a trick.

I get why you might feel that way. Reading silently seems like the most natural thing in the world. People read books and newspapers in silence. And librarians are always shushing me in the library because it’s supposed to be a quiet place.

Ancient Greeks And Romans

You don’t need to say words out loud to read them, unless you’re reading to someone else. Isn’t that how reading works? Hasn’t it always been that way?

Part of what allows your brain to read those words on the page quickly and silently is something we take for granted: word separation. The ancient Greeks and Romans wrote in continuous script, meaning that they did not put spaces between words.

A Thousand Years Of Silence

According to some historians they mostly read out loud, even to themselves. Separating words finally became commonplace around the 12th Century. So, at least for the Western world, silent reading, as we know it today, may have been around for less than a thousand years.

It surprised me, too. Here’s something you can try at home to see for yourself. Try reading the following sentence silently to yourself. Addingspacesbetweenwordslightensthecognitiveloadwhilereading. If you can’t read that silently, try reading it aloud.

Thank you to Robert Port  and Ann Bunger of Indiana University for reviewing this episode’s script!

Sources And Further Reading:

Stay Connected

What is RSS? RSS makes it possible to subscribe to a website's updates instead of visiting it by delivering new posts to your RSS reader automatically. Choose to receive some or all of the updates from A Moment of Science:

Support for Indiana Public Media Comes From

About A Moment of Science

Search A Moment of Science