pa·​le·​og·​ra·​phy ˌpā-lē-ˈä-grə-fē How to pronounce paleography (audio)
 especially British  ˌpa-
: the study of ancient or antiquated writings and inscriptions : the deciphering and interpretation of historical writing systems and manuscripts
: an ancient or antiquated manner of writing
: ancient or antiquated writings
ˌpā-lē-ˈä-grə-fər How to pronounce paleography (audio)
 especially British  ˌpa-

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The world's oldest literature dates from about 4,000 years ago, from the land known as Sumer (now southern Iraq). Early writing took the form of pictographs, very simple pictures that first represented things or ideas and later came to represent actual words. The first actual alphabet, in which each character represents a sound, appeared in the same general region about 500 years later. But writing developed in very different ways in different parts of the world, and 1,000 years later, when Europeans first arrived in the New World, alphabetic writing still wasn't being used anywhere in the Americas. Decoding some ancient languages has proven to be a huge task for paleographers, and determining the age and the source of a piece of writing can pose major challenges.

Examples of paleography in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web In the future, cursive will have to be taught to scholars the way Elizabethan secretary hand or paleography is today. Drew Gilpin Faust, The Atlantic, 16 Sep. 2022

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'paleography.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


borrowed from New Latin palaeographia "ancient writing," from palaeo- paleo- + -graphia -graphy

Note: The New Latin word was probably introduced by the French Benedictine monk and scholar Bernard de Montfaucon (1655-1741), who entitled his work on Greek manuscript hands Palaeographia Graeca, sive de ortu et progressu literarum Graecarum ("Greek paleography, or concerning the origin and progress of Greek letters") (Paris, 1708).

First Known Use

1749, in the meaning defined at sense 2a

Time Traveler
The first known use of paleography was in 1749

Dictionary Entries Near paleography

Cite this Entry

“Paleography.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 19 Jul. 2024.

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