Coffee & Donatus: the Story of Early Grammars

William Lily's Short Introduction of Grammar 1754

Radix Doctrina Amara, Fructus Dulcis. From William Lily’s “Short Introduction of Grammar,” 1754.

Coffee & Donatus is about early grammars— the fragments, facsimiles, manuscripts, pamphlets, and books that explain the inner workings of the world’s languages. While few outside academic circles speak of grammars in the same breath as they do the great works of literature, science, philosophy or religion, it’s safe to say that grammars have played a uniquely important and influential role throughout history. Collectively, they also run the gamut from some of the most beautiful and interesting examples of design, typography, and printing, to some of the shoddiest (but still wonderful) productions imaginable.

The story of grammars and the cast of characters that produced them are deeply connected to many of the social, religious, and political transformations that have been ongoing for centuries. By aiding our understanding of languages, living and dead, grammars would become keys to communication and knowledge sharing across cultural boundaries and across time. They were part and parcel of the evolution of education; they played a pivotal role in early exploration and the spread of commerce and religion; they quietly helped form, reform and reinforce national identities through language; and they offered a continual source for discovery as linguistic and philosophical discourse became irrevocably intertwined.

Grammars were created for a great variety of purposes and evolved rapidly with the advent of printing in Europe. Some are aesthetically sophisticated, some ingeniously designed, and some are so perfectly junky that one can’t help but find them appealing. There were, of course, the splendid volumes of works by the classical grammarians, with their large formats, stately layouts and oceans of uninterrupted text; the scrappy little pamphlets used and abused in schoolhouses seemingly never went out of fashion; scholars had their thick, densely typeset grammatical tomes; missionaries prepared simple, practical grammars for use in remote parts of the world (and sometimes printed them there too); pocket-sized grammars for merchants and travelers flooded the market of centuries past; and to add to this great diversity of form and format, many high schools, universities, military academies, and even a few fly-by-night business colleges commissioned their own grammars. The list could go on.

Grammars are not only fascinating because of what they tell us about language, but for what they tell us about ourselves and our history. Whether you are a linguist, scholar, book collector, or casual passerby, we hope you will find something interesting and even amusing in these pages. We welcome your comments, suggestions, and corrections.

About Our Name: Showing Results for Coffee & Donuts
The stories on this site are of the more casual variety— something to be enjoyed in a few spare moments with a good cup of coffee (tea is ok too). The name also pays homage to the 4th century Roman grammarian Aelius Donatus. His Ars Minor, was likely the first grammar printed with movable type, and some speculate that it even preceded the great Gutenberg Bible. Mostly fragments remain of the earliest printed Donatus grammars. It is perhaps appropriate that the words and images found on Coffee & Donatus are also fragments of the much larger story of grammar.

Search instead for Coffee & Donuts_03bw

With a name that’s easily confused with “coffee and donuts,” it will be interesting to see who makes it past the delectable temptations offered up by the search engines.

Submissions Welcome
It is our hope that the ideas and perspectives represented on Coffee & Donatus will grow over time. If you have a previously unpublished piece you feel would be of interest to our readers, we would like to hear from you. We also welcome contributions of imagery and are happy to receive tips on other great stories and recommended sites. Submitted works should be of a non-commercial nature, and publication is subject to the approval of the editor and his helpful band of knowledgeable cohorts. Contact us to discuss or share your ideas.

Sharing— Please Do!
Images that do no cite a specific source in the caption and carry the Coffee & Donatus watermark are from books and manuscripts in private collections and are used with permission. These images are here to be shared, so pleas do. Crediting us is all we ask. When sharing images from other institutions, please follow their specific guidelines. High resolution imagery is also available for non-commercial purposes. More images, and information are available on Twitter and on Tumblr. We hope you will follow along!

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