AskDefine | Define uncial

Dictionary Definition

uncial adj : relating to or written in majuscule letters (which resemble modern capitals); "uncial letters" n : a style of orthography characterized by somewhat rounded capital letters; found especially in Greek and Latin manuscripts of the 4th to 8th centuries

User Contributed Dictionary


Etymology 1

Attested 1650, from uncia.


  1. Of, or relating to an ounce, or an inch, especially to letters printed an inch high.

Etymology 2

Attested 1712, from unciales, |unciales litterae (Jerome), plural of uncialis, from uncia. The literal meaning is unclear: some references indicate "inch-high letters", but see “Uncial script” in Wikipedia.


  1. Of, or relating to a majuscule style of writing with unjoined, rounded letters, originally used in the 4th–9th centuries.


  1. A style of writing using uncial letters.
  2. A letter in this style.
  3. A manuscript in this style.

Derived terms

Related terms


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Extensive Definition

Uncial is a majuscule script commonly used from the 3rd to 8th centuries AD by Latin and Greek scribes. From the 8th century to the 13th century the script was more often used as a display script in headings and titles.


Early uncial script most likely developed from late Old Roman cursive. Early forms are characterized by broad single stroke letters using simple round forms taking advantage of the new parchment and vellum surfaces, as opposed to the angular, multiple stroke letters which are more suited for rougher surfaces, such as papyrus. In the oldest examples of uncial, such as the De bellis macedonicis manuscript in the British Library, all of the letters are disconnected from one another, and word separation is typically not used. Word separation, however, is characteristic of later uncial usage.
As the script evolved over the centuries, the characters became more complex. Specifically, around AD 600, flourishes and exaggerations of the basic strokes began to appear in more manuscripts. Ascenders and descenders were the first major alterations, followed by twists of the tool in the basic stroke and overlapping. By the time the more compact minuscule scripts arose circa AD 800, some of the evolved uncial styles formed the basis for these simplified, smaller scripts. Uncial was still used, particularly for copies of the Bible, tapering off until around the 10th century. There are over 500 surviving copies of uncial script, by far the largest number prior to the Carolingian Renaissance.


In general, there are some common features of uncial script:
  • m, n, and u are relatively broad; m is formed with curved strokes (although a straight first stroke may indicate an early script), and n is written as N to distinguish it from r and s.
  • f, i, p, s, t are relatively narrow.
  • e is formed with a curved stroke, and its arm (or hasta) does not connect with the top curve; the height of the arm can also indicate the age of the script (written in a high position, the script is probably early, while an arm written closer to the middle of the curve may indicate a later script).
  • l has a small base, not extending to the right to connect with the next letter.
  • r has a long, curved shoulder, often connecting with the next letter.
  • s resembles (and is the ancestor of) the "long s"; in uncial it looks more like r than f.
In later uncial scripts, the letters are sometimes drawn haphazardly; for example, double-l runs together at the baseline, bows (for example in b, p, r) do not entirely curve in to touch their stems, and the script is generally not written as cleanly as previously.

National styles

Due to its extremely widespread use, in Byzantine, African, Italian, French, Spanish, and "insular" (English and Irish) centres, there were many slightly different styles in use:
  • African (i.e. Roman North African) uncial is more angular than other forms of uncial. In particular, the bow of the letter a is particularly sharp and pointed.
  • Byzantine uncial has two unique features: "b-d uncial" uses forms of b and d which are closer to half-uncial (see below), and was in use in the 4th and 5th centuries; "b-r" uncial, in use in the 5th and 6th centuries, has a form of b that is twice as large as the other letters, and an r with a bow resting on the baseline and the stem extending below the baseline.
  • Italian uncial has round letters (c, e, o, etc) with flatter tops, an a with a sharp bow (as in African uncial), an almost horizontal rather than vertical stem in d, and forked finials (i.e., serifs in some letters such as f, l, t, and s).
  • Insular uncial (not to be confused with the separate insular script) generally has definite word separation, and accent marks over stressed syllables, probably because English and Irish scribes did not speak a language descended from Latin. They also use specifically Insular scribal abbreviations not found in other uncial forms, use wedge-shaped finials, connect a slightly subscript "pendant i" with m or h (when at the end of a word), and decorate the script with animals and dots ("Insular dotting", often in groups of three).
  • French (that is, Merovingian) uncial uses thin descenders (in g, p, etc), an x with lines that cross higher than the middle, and a d with a curled stem (somewhat resembling an apple), and there are many decorations of fish, trees, and birds.
  • Cyrillic manuscript developed from Greek uncial in the late ninth century (mostly replacing the Glagolitic alphabet), and was originally used to write the Old Church Slavonic liturgical language. The earlier form was called ustav (predominant in the 11–14th centuries), and later developed into semi-ustav script (or poluustav, 15–16th centuries).

Origin of the word

The word, uncial, is also sometimes used to refer to manuscripts that have been scribed in uncial, especially when differentiating from those which have been penned with minuscule. Some of the most noteworthy Greek uncials are:
The Petropolitanus is considered by some to contain optimum uncial style. It is also an example of how large the characters were getting.
For further details on these manuscripts, see Guglielmo Cavallo Ricerche sulla Maiuscola Biblica (Florence, 1967).
Modern calligraphy usually teaches a form of evolved Latin-based uncial hand that would probably be best compared to the later 7th to 10th century examples, though admittedly, the variations in Latin uncial are much wider and less rigid than Greek. Modern uncial has borrowed heavily from some of the conventions found in more cursive scripts, using flourishes, variable width strokes, and on occasion, even center axis tilt.
In a way comparable to the continued widespread use of the blackletter typefaces for written German until well into the 20th century, Gaelic letterforms which are similar to uncial letterforms were conventionally used for typography in Irish until the 1950s. The script is still widely used in this way for titles of documents, inscriptions on monuments and other 'official' uses. Strictly speaking, the Gaelic script is insular, not uncial.

Half-uncial or semi-uncial

The term half-uncial or semi-uncial was first used in the mid-18th century by René Prosper Tassin and Charles François Toustain, and despite its common use and understanding, it is not a very accurate name - it is not really derived from regular uncial, but it does look similar and shares many of its features; sometimes, especially when both were developing, the two scripts were used simultaneously in a mixed-uncial script.
Like uncial, half-uncial derived from Roman cursive. It was first used around the 3rd century and remained in use until the end of the 8th century. The early forms of half-uncial were used for pagan authors and Roman legal writing, while in the 6th century the script came to be used in Africa and Europe (but not as often in insular centres) to transcribe Christian texts.


Some general forms of half-uncial letters are:
  • a is usually round, sometimes with a slightly open top
  • b and d have vertical stems, identical to the modern letters
  • g has a flat top, no bow, and a curved descender (somewhat resembling the number 5)
  • t has a curved shaft
  • n, r, and s are similar to their uncial counterparts (with the same differences compared to modern letters)
Half-uncial was brought to Ireland in the 5th century, and was then carried to England. There, it was used up to the 8th century, and developed into the insular script after the 8th century.

External links

uncial in Catalan: Uncial
uncial in Danish: Uncial
uncial in German: Unziale
uncial in French: Onciale
uncial in Galician: Uncial
uncial in Italian: Onciale
uncial in Dutch: Unciaal
uncial in Polish: Uncjała
uncial in Russian: Унциал
uncial in Finnish: Unsiaali
uncial in Swedish: Uncialskrift
uncial in Turkish: Uncial
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