Unearthing the Start of Punctuation

By Beth Gerber

February 9, 2011

Over at Catchword offices this morning we are wading through various hash tags while Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Me and Jane Doe swirls around our brain.

And then we get jarred into wondering, just how did punctuation come to be used?

Because after all, at first there was no punctuation. Of course, at that time there was only a book or two in any village. And those were the hand lettered religious texts for the local house of worship. Punctuation wasn’t necessary because virtually no one except the priest could read. Communication and knowledge acquisition were essentially only verbal.

Texts were created in what was referred to as scriptio continua, a style of writing with no space or other marks between words or sentences. There was no need for punctuation since the text was read aloud. There was also no need for lower case letters, for that matter.

In fact, the text was an afterthought. Speakers memorized the document and kept the printed version on hand as a cue sheet. Kind of the inverse to a Teleprompter, when you think about it.

What we would consider punctuation probably first appeared mainly as an aid to the speaker: space in the text to allow them to keep their place and to maintain a pace.

The nascent paragraph was also often marked by enlarging the first letter of the first word within the text. In the early days of recorded (written) history, books were typically based not on creating new expressions, but in copying classic text. Such copying dictated the development of the shape of the punctuation mark.

While trying to closely duplicate the existing text, scribes deployed punctuation marks where they could be inserted as the dimensions of the paper would allow. That’s why a period (initially referred to as a “point”) is in the shape of a tiny dot. A paragraph might begin with an elaborate letter. But by the end of the page, a scribe would have run out of room.

Another important development was to make the punctuation mark(s) compatible in size and emphasis with their accompanying text. Punctuation marks would support the text and not dominate with an absolute, predetermined size.

With the march of civilization, culture became more sophisticated. Thanks to efforts from diverse sources including Isidore of Seville, there was sustained effort to formally record information into text. Isidore’s most noted effort was his Etymologiae, an early summa, or attempt to document all human knowledge (take that, Wikipedia). But Isidore also spurred the shift from acquiring knowledge through silent reading, not speaking aloud or listening.

One aspect of this shift was the increase in written text. And this text was increasingly written in language that was foreign to the reader.

Punctuation was first useful only to scribes and those closest to them (literally within arm’s reach up in the ol’ garret). It began to regularly appear when texts were more widely distributed. Over time, and particularly due to the efforts of Irish scribes, punctuation flourished.

It provided several vital functions.

First, punctuation ensured a consistent, common understanding. Punctuation could steer the reader to a hierarchy, signaling those portions of the text that were most important. The punctuation also made the text more readable because Latin was a foreign language. Furthermore, with the introduction of the printing press and standardized typefaces, punctuation fostered more uniform communication.

At first there were only a few punctuation marks. The subsequent addition of other marks added increased nuance and subtlety to the language. With greater clarity and tonality from everything to a sonnet to a product name, progress is made.

At Catchword, we are big fans of anything that extends and expands the richness and depth of language. In our naming efforts we strive to honor and exalt language.

In fact, we think this should be part of International Mother Language Day (February 21 y’all) that celebrates the importance of words, including even the lowly yet industrious punctuation marks.

We promise not to set off any bottle rockets off from the roof on IML Day. Okay, well, maybe just one. After all, it’s International Mother Language Day, right?

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