This is pretty cumbersome to read. Where does one word start and another end? And yet this was precisely how text looked like for a very long time. No differences between upper and lower case, no punctuation, and (shriek!) no spaces between the words to tell where one started and another ended.
And then after this very long time of written words strung together one after the other, text slowly started to look a bit more like it does today. Some punctuation here and there, indicating grammatical relationships within a sentence; maybe some playing around with writing a word or two bigger, or just the beginning of words, and (finally!) spaces between words for ease of reading.
Writing, just like any human thing, isn’t a “today this, and tomorrow that” practise: it’s not like one of those American cities built with a ruler, dividing urban space into neat and square blocks. No, writing’s more like an old European town, maybe Rome, or Cologne that grew organically, that is, from a core outward at different speeds, sometimes a bit more here, and sometimes a bit more there, with some really old bits, and some more recent ones, and some totally modern parts, and altogether pretty messy and human.
Writing is like a rumble jumble town with age-wrinkles and soft baby skin: new ways of doing things would overlap with old ways, slowly phasing out. So, we might find a manuscript from 500 A.D. that uses punctuation and we might find a contemporary manuscript that doesn’t. This is a tangent to the topic at hand: word spaces.
More than anything, any human invention, from Chat GPT (there, I said it!) to the internet, flying, concrete, domesticating animals, condoms, the printing press, and probably even fire: out of all we’ve accomplished as a species, writing is probably the biggest leap of the imagination. It’s the pinnacle of the possible for us, and we haven’t produced anything more astounding since 5000 B.C. Mesopotamia where someone had the idea of scratching an abstract sign into soft clay, and deciding it represented a sound, and those symbols could be combined to represent words, and things out there. That translation from spoken letter to abstract symbol, and the translation back is magic. It seems so clear to us today, but it really is a mind-boggling feat. Scholars believe cuneiform tablets may show some kind of text organisation, but the jury is still out on that one. Hieroglyphs have rudimentary punctation, that is, lines and rubrication (some pictures are written in another colour to pick them out for whatever reason), as well as a sign for “pause”. But it’s the Greeks (in Hellenic Egypt!) who gave us the first marks of punctuation telling us information about syntax.
Before the head librarian of the famous library of Alexandria, the venerable Aristophanes, hit on a way to help Greek-learners to read the hundreds of thousands of scrolls in the vaults of his institution in around 200 B.C., the Greeks would just write strings of letters one after the other as if recording speech. And because we don’t hear pauses between words (though we do, they’re just too small to be consciously noticed as I explore here), it didn’t occur to people why they should demarcate words (or sentences) from one another. If you consider text a mere record of speech, then why invent something to make it readable (because then you’d have realised writing is a form of words in its own right).
Spaces as word separators only entered the scene in 8th century Ireland (deserving their own blog entry!). Just why it took so long to become second nature to writing (and indeed be invented in the first place) is not entirely clear: perhaps to save space when space was critical. Remember those early text messaging days? Every character including spaces, numbers, and punctuation was precious (producing inelegancies like CUL8R), and determined if you had to send another message and spend another couple of pennies. One had to choose carefully. Every character was meaningful, and stemmed from a deliberateness of thought we no longer need to grapple with in times of WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. Or is this development rather a loss?
Other factors for the lack of word spaces could be different attitudes to writing: text had to do different things, and was produced and consumed by different groups compared to today. Now, we have an expectation of readability towards writing, and a claim to democratised access for everyone. Hence, both style and design need to be clear and clean, so that the text’s treasure (its information) can easily and swiftly be retrieved by everyone with basic literacy skills regardless of their further levels of education. This attitude, so apparently sensible today, has, for the most part of humanity’s relationship with reading and writing, been not so self-evident.
Those few able to read, that means, to read what was worthy of being recorded, had the luxury to take time over it, and simply didn’t need punctuation to make their task easier and faster. They were also highly familiar with the twists and turns or elegant expressions, well used to picking out grammatical relationships. Most significantly, attitudes towards writing and speech differ now and then: you wrote in order to speak, and you spoke only after having read thoroughly. There was little notion of writing as writing, independent of speech, and behaving according to, and indeed in need of, its own set of conventions.
A problem with the continual script practice, though, is that it offers ample room for misunderstandings: some ambiguities are fun, others less so, and really require resolution. Think of “an adder” which used to be “a nadder” (from the German “Natter”), but someone at some point in the Middle Ages misread an “n” hovering between the indefinite article and the noun, and chose to attach it to the article. Adder, nadder, potato, potato. But what about a book where it really matters? The Bible, for example? Or a legal text? When the salvation of your soul is on the table, or at the very least your head in this life, words had better be placed very precisely!
Context is king in cases of ambiguity, then as now: consider websites today. URLS have no spaces between words for a reason that is beyond my understanding. Here’s what people in a Facebook IT group have said:
1) it’s unsafe to have spaces in website names
2) All the programming languages and web scripting as well have spaces that follow a structure (example: If a=b then go to b else go to c), my guess would be a single URL would have to be contained in a much more complicated structure to keep it’s integrity if it would contain spaces.
3) Spaces are among more than a dozen characters that are illegal in hyperlinks, because they call a function.” – “First off, there are technically spaces in URLs. They are normally displayed as “%20”. It’s because all characters must be converted to ASCII. Then into hexadecimal or binary for the hardware to process and back again into the characters that are outside of the ASCII table. Programming languages are crazy complex.
I have absolutely no idea what people are talking about, but maybe someone reading this will get it. The long and short of it is: no word spaces for URLS.
In any case, the lack of word spaces online does not only offer opportunities for long domain names, but plenty of pun fun: therapistlocator.net helps you to find, well, a mental health practitioner. Without any ‘wink wink’, penisland.net makes ‘your pen’ their ‘business’, ipanywhere.com does not help your incontinence, and analemma.org is not really about a fussy woman, or porn predilections, but an astrology society that organizes star-gazing events (analemma refers to the figure of eight the sun’s course describes seen from a fixed place on earth over the course of a year). Other websites stumbling over the joyful ambiguities of continual script are no longer available, though well documented, such as chosespain.com (a sometime Iberian tourist website), bendover.com (an old-school-looking conspiracy-theory-laden site run by someone called Ben Dover), and the unbeatably creepy molestationnursery.com, a plant nursery now called Mole River rather than Mole Station Nursery.
Although continual script is bothersome, with a bit of practise and patience we are generally able to read the words well enough: and that’s also we why we can decipher a website containing two or more words squashed together. URLs eliminate word spaces (one can, of course, use hyphens or camel case, LikeSo, common practice for hashtagging of several words or a whole sentence on social media). And can you read this?
It’s not easy to decipher, but it’s also not exactly hard. Forward slash and dot com sandwich 63 characters between them, as much as the internet permits. So, it’s apt that this nearly blank one-page-website announces ‘God’s final message’, a quotation by Douglas Adam: ‘We apologize for the inconvenience.’
It’s not really a sentence, but in the race for world’s longest domain, one must mention http://llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.co.uk/, the charmingly old-school tourism website for the Welsh village whose name translates as ‘Saint Mary’s Church in the hollow of the white hazel near a rapid whirlpool and the Church of Saint Tysilio of the red cave’. Either there were many such villages between churches, whirlpools, and hazels that the name needed to be as precise, or the name-giver had a penchant for landscape description.
Whatever the reason, the website won the village their entry in the 2002 Guinness Book of Records as longest domain name (before God’s final message came about). Competition grew, the village lost its unique position, but once the permissible number of characters increased to 70, it took its victory back through another sneaky scene specification.
We can now click on llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogochuchaf.org.uk to access the website, particularly referring to the ‘uchaf’ or ‘old’ part of the village.
And the last but probably most obsessed owner of long domain names is the German mathematician Gerard Steffen who loves all things π and pie. His longest numbered website goes to the 63rd position after the decimal point of pi. In case you don’t know, it’s this:
You’re welcome. Steffen’s website plays with the endless mathematical number and its identically-sounding edible counterpart. You can even buy a book called π in which are listed one million positions after the decimal point in small rows on 202 pages. Of strictly numbers only. It’s probably not a surprise the book is no longer available in hard copy. All issues must have been snapped up.
I like that we’ve just gone back to basics with websites. We think we’re so modern and advanced with our superfast messages from one end of the globe to another. But really, the main mechanism has stayed the same for 7000 years now. Abstract symbols representing sounds representing words representing objects out there, and thoughts and feelings in here. Since the internet, we’ve gone back even further and have got rid of spaces between words (at least in website names). What’s next???