Scribal abbreviation

Scribal abbreviation
Text sample from an early 15th century Bible manuscript.

Scribal abbreviations (sigla [plural], siglum and sigil [singular]) are the abbreviations used by ancient and mediæval scribes writing in Latin and, later, in Greek and Old Norse. Modern manuscript editing (substantive and mechanical) employs sigla as symbols indicating the location of a source manuscript and to identify the copyist(s) of a work.



Abbreviated writing, via sigla, arose partly from the exigencies of the workable nature of the materials — stone, metal, parchment, et cetera — employed in record-making, and partly from their availability. Thus, lapidaries, engravers, and copyists made the most of the available writing space. Scribal abbreviations were infrequent when writing materials were plentiful. Consequently, scribes recorded texts in long form. However, by the third and fourth centuries AD, when writing materials were scarce and costly, the scribe-artists became sparing in their use of the limited writing surface when inscribing long texts to record.

During the time of the Roman Republic, several abbreviations, known as sigla (siglum=symbol/abbreviation), were in common use in inscriptions and increased in number during Roman Empire. Additionally, in this period shorthand entered general usage. The earliest western shorthand system known to us is that employed by the Greek historian, Xenophon in the memoir of Socrates, called notae socratae. In late republican times, the notae Tironianae (nota = mark) short-hand writing system was developed possibly by Marcus Tullius Tiro, Cicero’s amanuensis, in 63 BC in order to record information with fewer symbols; Tironian notes include a shorthand/syllabic alphabet notation different from the Latin minuscule hand and square and rustic capital letters, which is akin to modern stenographic writing systems, and also symbols for whole words or word roots and grammatical modifier marks and could either be used to write whole passages in shorthand or only certain words. In medieval times the symbols to represent words were widely used and the initial symbols, which were as low as 140 according to some sources, were expanded to 14,000 by the Carolingians who used them in conjunction with other abbreviations. However, the alphabet notation had a "murky existence" (C. Burnett) as it was often associated with witchcraft and magic and was eventually forgotten. Interest in it was rekindled by the archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Beckett in the 12th century and later in the 15th, when it was rediscovered by Johannes Trithemius, abbot of the benedictine abbey of Sponheim, in a psalm written entirely in Tironian shorthand and a Ciceronian lexicon, which were discovered in a Benedictine monastery (notae benensis).[1]

To learn the Tironian note system, scribes required formal schooling in some 4,000 symbols; by the Classical period (ca. 7th c. BC–AD 5th c.), the number increased to some 5,000 symbols, then to some 13,000 in the medieval period (AD 4th–15th c.);[2] to date, the denotations of some characters remain uncertain. Sigla are mostly for lapidary inscription; in certain late historical periods (e.g. medieval Spain), scribal abbreviations were over-used to the extent that some are indecipherable.

Moreover, in the twenty-first century, sigla are a public matter, because, in re-establishing post–Devolution Scots law, the Scottish Parliament must decipher their meaning(s) as used in the old, Latin-language Scottish law codes. Latinists who have not learned the palaeography of the language cannot decipher many of the thirteen thousand medieval sigla used to write these laws.


The identity and usage of abbreviations is not constant but changes from region to region and increases in usage and reaches its height in the Carolingian Renaissance (8-10th century), in fact often transcription mistakes are seen in manuscripts where an abbreviation is unfamiliar. The most common abbreviations, called notae comunes, are encountered across most of Europe, whereas others appear in certain regions. Additionally in legal documents not only legal abbreviations appear, called notae juris but also capricious abbreviations, which the scribe manufactures to avoid repeating names and places in the document.[3]
Scribal abbreviations can be found in epigraphy, sacred and legal manuscripts, written in Latin or in vulgar (less frequent and fewer abbreviations) calligraphically or not.

Latin abbreviations of praedicatorum, quoque, conversis, and quorum.

In epigraphy, common abbreviations were comprehended in two observed classes:

  • The abbreviation of a word to its initial letter;
  • The abbreviation of a word to its first consecutive letters, or to several letters, spaced in the word.

These two forms of abbreviation are called "suspensions" (as the scribe suspends the writing of the word), a separate form of abbreviation is by "contraction" and was mostly a Christian usage for sacred words, Nomina Sacra; non-Christian sigla usage usually limited the number of letters the abbreviation comprised, and omitted no intermediate letter. One practice was rendering an over-used, formulaic phrase only as a siglum, e.g. DM for Dis Manibus (“Dedicated to the Manes”); IHS from the first three letters of "ΙΗΣΟΥΣ"; and RIP for requiescat in pace (“Rest in Peace”), because the long-form written usage of the abbreviated phrase, itself, was rare. According to Trabe, these abbreviations are not really meant to lighten the burden of the scribe but rather to shroud in reverent obscurity the holiest words of the Christian religion.[4]

Another practice was repeating the abbreviation’s final consonant a given number of times to indicate a group of as many persons, for example: AVG denoted “Augustus”, thus, AVGG denoted “Augusti duo”; however, lapidaries took typographic liberties with that rule, and, instead of using COSS to denote “Consulibus duobus”, invented the CCSS form. Still, when occasion required referring to three or four persons, the complex doubling of the final consonant yielded to the simple plural siglum. To that effect, a vinculum (overbar) above a letter or a letter-set also was so used, til becoming universal medieval typographic usage. Likewise the tilde (~), an undulated, curved-end line, came into standard late-medieval usage.

Besides the tilde and macron marks, above and below letters, modifying cross-bars and extended strokes were employed as scribal abbreviation marks — used mostly for prefixes and verb, noun, and adjectival suffixes. These typographic abbreviations should not be confused with the phrasal abbreviations: i.e. (id est — “that is”); loc. cit. (loco citato — “in the passage already cited”); viz. (vide licet — “namely”, “that is to say”, “in other words” — formed with “vi” and the yogh-like glyph [Ȝ], the siglum for the suffix -et and the conjunction et), and et cetera.

Moreover, besides scribal abbreviations, ancient texts also contain variant typographic characters, including digraphs (e.g. Æ, Œ, etc.), the long s (ſ), and the half r, resembling an Arabic number two (“2”). The “u” and “v” characters originated as scribal variants for their respective letters, like-wise the “i” and “j” pair. Modern publishers printing Latin-language works replace variant typography and sigla with full-form Latin spellings; the convention of using “u” and “i” for vowels and “v” and “j” for consonants is a late typographic development.

Scribal sigla in modern use

Latin alphabet

Some ancient and medieval sigla are still used in English and other European languages; the Latin ampersand (&), replaces the conjunctions and in English, et in Latin and French, and y in Spanish (though its use in Spanish is frowned upon, since the y is already smaller and easier to write). The Tironian sign , resembling the number seven (“7”), represents the conjunction et, and is written only to the x-height; in current Irish language usage, this siglum denotes the conjunction and. (See Tironian notes.) Other scribal abbreviations in modern typographic use are: the percentage sign (%), from the Italian per cento (“per hundred”); the permille sign (), from the Italian per mille (“per thousand”); the pound sign (, £ and #, all descending from or lb, librum); and the dollar sign ($), which derives from the Spanish word Peso. The commercial at symbol (@), denoting “at the rate of”, is a ligature derived from the English preposition at; it became widely known internationally only when it was made part of e-mail addresses.

Typographically, the ampersand (&), representing the word et, is a space-saving ligature of the letters “e” and “t”, its component graphemes. Since the establishment of movable-type printing in the fifteenth century, founders created many such ligatures for each set of record type (font) in order to communicate much information with fewer symbols. Moreover, during the Renaissance (ca. 14th–17th c.), when Ancient Greek-language manuscripts introduced that tongue to Western Europe, its scribal abbreviations were converted to ligatures, in imitation of the Latin scribal writing to which readers were accustomed. Later, in the sixteenth century, when the culture of publishing included Europe’s vernacular languages, Græco–Roman scribal abbreviations disappeared — an ideologic deletion ascribed to the anti-Latinist Protestant Reformation (1517–1648).

Church Slavonic

Sigla frequently used in contemporary Church Slavonic

After the invention of printing, manuscript copying abbreviations continued to be employed in the Church Slavonic language and today remain in use in printed books as well as on icons and inscriptions. Many common long roots as well as nouns describing sacred persons are abbreviated and written under the special diacritic symbol titlo, as shown in the figure at the right. This corresponds to the Nomina sacra (Latin: "Sacred names") tradition of using contractions for certain frequently occurring names in Greek ecclesiastical texts. However, sigla for personal nouns are restricted to "good" beings and the same words, when referring to "bad" beings are spelled out; for example, while "God" in the sense of the one true God is abbreviated as «бг҃ъ», "god" referring to "false" gods is spelled out; likewise, while the word for "angel" is generally abbreviated as «агг҃лъ», “angels” is spelled out for “performed by evil angels” in Psalm 77.[5]

Abbreviations listed by Cappelli

Adriano Cappelli, author of lexicon abbreviarum: dizionario di abbreviature latine ed italiane,[6] enumerates the various mediaeval brachigraphic signs found in Latin and Italian vulgar texts, which originate from the roman sigla (a symbol to express a word) and notae Tironianae. Quite rarely abbreviations did not carry marks to indicate an abbreviation has occurred, if they did they were often copying errors, as an example e.g. is written with dots, however modern terms may not, such as PC (written uppercase). It should be noted that the original manuscripts were not written in a modern san-serif or serif font, but in roman capitals, rustic, uncial, insular, Carolingian or blackletter styles, for more refer to Western calligraphy or [7] for a good beginner's guide. Additionally, abbreviation varied across Europe, in Nordic texts for instance two runes were used in text written in the Latin alphabet, which are ᚠ for (cattle/goods) and ᛘ for maðr (man). He divides abbreviations into 6 overlapping categories:

  • by suspension (Italian: troncamento)
  • by contraction (Italian: contrazione)
  • with independent meaning (Italian: con significato proprio)
  • with relative meaning (Italian: con significato relativo)
  • by nested letters (Italian: per lettere sovraposte)
  • by convention (Italian: segni convenzionali)


These are terms where only the first part is written, whilst the last part is substituted by a mark, which can be of two types:

  • general, indicating there has been an abbreviation but not how. These marks are placed above or across the ascender of the letters
Truncation gen.svg

the last three of this series are knot-like and are used in papal or regal documents

  • specific, indicate that a truncation has occurred
Truncation spec.svg

The third case is a stylistic alternative found in several fonts, here Andron ( Unicode chart extended D). Examples:

Truncation spec example.svg

The largest class of these are single letters standing for a word starting with that letter. A dot at the baseline following a capital letter may stand for a title if used in front of names, a persons name in mediaeval legal documents or other. However not all sigla use the beginning of the word. Here are some exceptions

Truncation example exceptions.svg

Often for two or more, the sigla is doubled (FF.=fratres). Often trippled sigla stand for three (DDD = domini tres). Letters which are lying on their side or mirrored often indicate female titles, however, a mirrored C stands generally for con or contra (the latter sometimes with a macron above). To avoid confusion with abbreviations and numerals the latter are often written with a bar above, however in some contexts numbers with a line above indicate that number times a thousand whilst others several abbreviations have a line above, such as XP (Greek letters chi+rho) correctly = Christus or IHS =Jesus, the latter two for a special case of abbreviations known as nomina sacra. From the 8-9th century, single letters sigla were less common and longer less ambiguous ones were used with bars above.


Abbreviations by contractions have one or more middle letters omitted and were often represented with a general mark of abbreviation (above) such as a line above. These can be divided in pure or mixed:

  1. pure contractions keep only the first (one or more) and last (one or more) letters but not letters in between. A special case of these is when they keep only the first and last letter resulting in a 2 letter sigla.
  2. mixed keep one or more intermediate letters

Marks with independent meaning

These marks inform the reader of the identity of the missing part of the word independently of its meaning. Some of these are:

Indip abbr.svg
  1. The straight or curved macron above a letter means that a nasal consonant is missing either an "n" or an "m". However in Visigoth texts before the 9th century a dot is placed above the line to indicate "m", without a dot meaning "n", the line with dot later became the general mark after the 9th century in Visigoth texts. A remnant of this can be seen in Spanish where an n with a tilde (ñ) is used for [ɲ].
  2. The second mark, which looks like the Arabic numeral "9" or a mirrored "C" in gothic texts, is one of the oldest signs and can be found in the texts of Marcus Valerius Probus and tironian notes with the same meaning of "con".
  3. The third mark, similar to a fat comma placed after the letter on the median line represented us or os, generally at the end of the word being the Nominative case affix of the second declension sometimes is or simply s. The apostrophe used today originated from various marks in sigla, hence its current use in elision, such as in the Saxon genitive.
  4. the fourth mark, wave-like or omicron-like, stands for a missing r (rhotic consonant) or ra. Sometimes a similar wave-like mark at the end of a word indicated a missing -a or syllable in -a, this is however a coincidence as these marks stem one from a small r-like mark and the other from an a-like, this in later text became a dieresis (two dots) or a broken line.
  5. The fifth mark, Arabic numeral 2-like place on the median line after the letter, indicated a Tur or an ur, which occur generally at the end of the word, alternatively it could stand for ter or er but not at the end of the words (Nordic languages, such as old English, has a lightning bolt like mark for end of words in er)
  6. The sixth mark, an r rotunda with a cut generally stood for rum, but could also stand for a truncation after an r.
  7. The seventh mark, which could either be 7-like (see "and" written in gaelic (agus) 0 or the ampersand (&) was used equally as the conjunction et (and) or as et in any part of the word. The 7-like symbol at the end of a word refers to the enclyctic -que (and). A corruption occurs in some manuscripts between the third and seventh mark.

Marks with relative meaning

The meaning of these marks depends on the letter they are on.

Rel abbr.svg
  1. the first mark is not fully above the character but crosses the descender or ascender. Specifically these are:
b bre-,ber-,-ub
c (with a link on the right) cum, con, cen-
con mark (above) quondam
d de-, der, -ud (as noted, a crossed d (additionally, either with a straight or uncinal (curved) ascender is a Icelandic alphabet letter called eth representing a voiced dental fricative)
h haec hoc, her
l vel, ul-,-el
m (above) mem-,mun-
n (above) non, nun-
o (crossed horizontally, not Danish Ø) oblit
p per, par-, por-
p (above) prae, pre- (alternatively a mark similar (but with little spiral character) to -us comma above could be used for this meaning, also valid for above q)
pp (above or below) propter, papa
q qui and in Italy que but in England quam, quia
q above quae
qq ((above or below) quoque
q (tilde above and line below) quam
t ter-, tem-, ten-
u (same as v, above) ven-,ver, -vit
  1. the dot, two dots, comma + dot (different than a semicolon) and the Arabic numeral 3-like mark were generally at the end of a word on the baseline. After b they mean -us (semicolon-like and 3-like also could mean -et). After q they for the conjunction -que (meaning "and" but attached to the end of the last world) with semicolon-like and 3-like the q could be omitted. semicolon-like, in Lombard documents, above s meant -sis. The dot above median line on an h hoc. dot above u ut or uti. The 3-like could mean -est, or after a, e, u vowels ment -m not us or ei, if after an o ment -nem. In certain papers the three like mark can be confused with a cut r rotunda (handwritten 4-like, see above). a dot to the left and right of a letter gave the following meanings: e=est, i=idest, n=enim, q=quasi, s=scilicet, t=tune, 9-like (con)=quondam, 7-like =etiam
  2. the third is a diagonal line, often hooked, crossing nearly all the letters giving a different meaning. commonly a missing er, ar, re. variants of which were placed above and were rotated question mark -like, tilde (crossing ascender) and similar to the us mark. These in combination gave additional meanings.
  3. 2-like mark, after a q =quia. after 15th century alone =et (being similar to 7-like) and alone with line above =etiam. After u and a at the end of a word =m, after s =et or ed.

stacked or nested letters

These generally referred to the letter missing, but in some instances of vowels may refer to a missing vowel and r before or after it (note: only in English r before consonants is silent and the preceding vowel r-colored). However, a, i, and o above g meant gna, gni, or gno respectively (this may seem counterintuitive to an English speaker where the g is silent in gn, but in other languages it is not, see Gn (digraph)). Vowels above q meant qu+vowel; a on r = regula; o on m = modo. Vowels were the most common superscripts, but consonants could be placed above letters (rarely with ascenders), the most common being c. A cut l above an n meant nihil or words with nihil. and so on.

Convention marks

These marks are non alphabet letters with a particular meaning, several of which have survived to this day such as the monetary symbols. Unicode calls them letter-like glyphs. Additionally, several authors believe roman numeral for example were nothing but abbreviations of the words of those numbers. Another examples of not-fully lost symbols are alchemical symbol and zodiac symbols, which were used rarely (only in alchemy and astrology texts).


In addition to the signs used to signify abbreviations, other features of medieval manuscripts, which are not sigla, are:

Unicode encoding of abbreviation marks

In the Unicode Standard v. 5.1 (4 April 2008), 152 medieval and classical glyphs were given specific locations outside of the deprecated private use group. Specifically, they are located in the charts Combining Diacritical Marks Supplement (26 chars.), Latin Extended Additional (10 chars.), Supplemental Punctuation (15 chars.), Ancient Symbols (12 chars.) and especially Latin Extended-D (89 chars.).[8] These consist in both precomposed characters and modifiers for other characters, called combining diacritical marks, (e.g. writing in LaTeX or using overstrike in MS Word). Note about terminology: Characters are ‘the smallest components of written language that have semantic value’, while glyphs are ‘the shapes that characters can have when they are rendered or displayed’ [9]

Examples of Latin abbreviations from 8-9th century across Europe

See also


  1. ^ David A. King, The ciphers of the monks: a forgotten number-notation of the Middle Ages, 2000, Franz Steiner Verlag
  2. ^ Guénin, Louis-Prosper; Guénin, Eugène (1908) (in French), Histoire de la sténographie dans l'antiquité et au moyen-âge; les notes tironiennes, Paris, Hachette et cie, OCLC 301255530 
  3. ^ Lindsay, Wallace Martin, Notae Latinae: An Account of Abbreviation in Latin Mss. Of the Early Minuscule Period (C. 700-850), 1915, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  4. ^ Traube, Ludwig, Nomina sacra: Versuch einer Geschichte der Christlichen Kürzung, Munich,1907
  5. ^ Гаманович, Алипий (1964, 1984). Грамматика Церковно-Славянскаго Языка. Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery Свято-Троицкий монастырь. pp. 271. ISBN N/A. 
  6. ^ Cappelli, Adriano - Lexicon Abbreviaturarum: Dizionario Di Abbreviature Latine Ed Italiane, 1999, Ulrico Hoepli Editore, 6th edition
  7. ^ The Calligrapher's Bible: 100 Complete Alphabets and How to Draw Them, David Harris, 2003
  8. ^
  9. ^

External links

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainHerbermann, Charles, ed (1913). "Methods of Abbreviation". Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company. 

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