Thursday, 3 September 2015

Writing - Origins of punctuation

It is not something that gives pleasure, they don't limit themselves, it seems easier to get it wrong than right, and it seems that it is a hook on which critics hang their criticisms. What is it? Punctuation.

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As readers and writers, we’re intimately familiar with the dots, strokes and dashes that punctuate the written word. The comma, colon, semicolon and their siblings are integral parts of writing, pointing out grammatical structures and helping us transform letters into spoken words or mental images. We would be lost without them (or, at the very least, extremely confused), and yet the earliest readers and writers managed without it for thousands of years. 

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Egyptian librarian, Aristophanes 3rd century BC, became frustrated at trying to decipher the strings of letters that were documents in those days. There were no capitals, no spaces and no punctuation. Eventually he suggested to people who submitted documents that they should introduce ink dots where pauses were required in the reading. The dots were in a space on the line, in the middle and at the top of the letters and were called comma, colon and periodos.
It wasn't popular and when the Romans overtook the Greek supremacy they dropped punctuation without a second thought. Cicero is quoted as saying,

'the end of a sentence should be determined not by the speaker pausing for breath, or by a stroke interposed by a copyist, but by the constraint of the rhythm'

Romans experimented by separating words with dots but the culture of public speaking was so strong that that method was dropped. In fact all reading was done aloud and it seems if they were deciphering a particularly confusing section they would murmur until they had clarified the section and then continue to read.

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Isidore of Seville

It was in the 7th century AD that Isidore of Seville, an Archbishop, who re-introduced an updated version of Aristophanes' punctuation. He was later beatified but not for his services to punctuation! In the 8th century Irish monks became fed up deciphering unfamiliar latin words and introduced spaces between. It was in Germany where King Charlemagne ordered a monk named Alcuin to devise an alphabet which led to our lower case letters.

There was much 'fiddling' about with punctuation for the next few hundred years, dashes were introduced by Italian Boncompagno da Signa and those in their turn evolved into the more recognisable marks we see today. Other influences came from music but by the mid 1450s the system we used today was formed and has changed little since. Until the advent of the computer!

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It is at this point where my limited knowledge begins to falter once again. I wasn't aware until quite recently that there was such a term as EMOJI. I have been aware of the little pictures of smiling faces  and so on, but had obviously slept the day they were given the collective name. The name is Japanese and was coined by Shigetaka Kurita, referring to emoticons or pictograms that pervade Japanese emails and messages. It seems to me a return to the pictography of the Ancient Egyptians.
However, emoji do punctuate writing particularly in emails, direct messaging and texting, so perhaps punctuation is on the move once again!

God Bless