Signs of Resistance: Punctuation Politics in Nineteenth-Century Arabic

I recently introduced myself to an online editor as “a researcher of English literature in the UK, working on punctuation. Originally, this was a project on brackets in Renaissance writing, but I’ve been sucked into so many rabbit hole vortices of curious punctuation that I guess I should think of myself as a generalist now’.

And it’s true. I’ve become obsessed with punctuation full stop (not sorry for punning). Any kind, from punctuation art to punctuation marks in chess, law, early emailing experiments, and raising street awareness (all blog entries that will be written!). I’ve been wondering about punctuation in other languages for a while, trying to gather information for a blog entry, but it’s tricky to grapple with something as slippery as language when you don’t speak that particular one. For example, there’s no dash in Japanese punctuation (although it contains plenty of other “European-style” marks) – does that mean Japanese writers do not need it? If so, why? Because people don’t tend to interrupt each other? Is there no dash because of a cultural premium placed on politeness and patience? I asked around on Twitter, and received a, shall we say, curt reply from a British researcher of Japanese. “No.” I’ve become weary of putting my stereotype foot in.

The pitfalls are strewn far and wide. So, I’ve been on the reticent side when it comes to non-European-languages-punctuation, but perhaps I shouldn’t be. Blogs are for testing out ideas after all. I’ve been quite keen on learning more about punctuation in semitic languages like Hebrew and Arabic, both compounded owing to their close relationship to holy books in those languages, a circumstance which should, however, not obscure the intrinsic oral nature of Judaism and Islam in their experience of worship and transmission. Holy punctuation (signs marking how to perform) is for another day. For now: secular Arabic.

So beautiful.

Koranic “punctuation”, to put it briefly, indicates pauses both for breath and meaning. Secular Arabic didn’t use to have any signs at all, except for spaces between the words. In order to be able to understand, one had to read; and in order to read, one had to have extensive grammatical training. Arabic (I am told and know because I tried) is a difficult language, so add to this natural obstacle its status of language in which divine revelation occurred (and which hence shouldn’t be, indeed needn’t be, changed), and you have the perfect recipe for paralysis.

Until you’re shocked into reforming through external circumstances in form of a global virus, or colonialism: French colonialising of the Maghreb brought not only political oppression, but also linguistic dominance, so much so that Arab writers and thinkers would publish and exchange with each other in French. People saw this as another kind of invasion, magnified by the slow ponderous nature of Arabic. Speaking of deceleration! I feel like that slow poring over sentences is part of desirable difficulty which encourages learning and retention (about which I have written here), but it’s obvious that Arabic would be at a disadvantage if readers need to take time and have grammatical training as opposed to French which, owing to the segmentation of sense, and clarification of meaning and feeling provided by punctuation, any reader can make sense of quickly enough.

Author and journalist Zaynab Fawwaz, also writer of the first play in Arabic written by a woman.

In order to forestall the continuing spread of French as linguistic medium, Arab thinkers focussed on how to make Arabic easier – which is funny, in a way, as we’re all super concerned nowadays about how (we think) our languages are becoming too easy, what with automatic word recognition programmes, orthography correction, and textese. The first to propose new punctuation-related developments for Arabic was the Lebanese writer Zaynab Fawwaz who, in an 1893 article in the Egyptian magazine al-Fata, advocates for taking over five signs from French punctuation: question and exclamation mark, colon, ellipsis, and (yesss!) brackets. These, she says, unlock the ‘hidden meaning’ of texts which is ‘incommunicable by words’ (translations & general information, see below). Fawwaz’ ideas were picked up by another Egyptian journal, al-Nil, whose editor writes a whole book with punctuation suggestions, that is, original signs for original nuances of expression. If Arabic was to take over such a French-inspired practice that would have such profound effects on communication in Arabic at all, then at least it should be on Arabic’s own terms.

Hossein al-Tuwayrani’s signs didn’t catch on, but, one imagines, not because of a resistance to punctuation or language reform in itself, but owing to their sheer volume (84 in total), and lack of clarity in terms of use. Al-Tuwayrani divided his signs into three categories, those guiding silent reading which segment sentences and translate emotion, those for tonality when reading aloud such as pauses, and those for body movement when holding a speech. As in the history and status of European punctuation, there’s a double bind again between grammar and rhetoric, the eye/mind, and the ear. I find the last category, that of movement, particularly intriguing as it reminds me of that Roman orator ideal, with Cicero and Quintilian giving advice on how to move the fingers in a certain way, and indeed, al-Tuwayrani proposes to encode movements of the eyes, head, fingers, hands, arms, even feet in specific punctuation marks.

A selection of al-Tuwayrani’s signs, via Awad.

Marks of tonality include pausing, chanting, volume, speed, trembling of the voice, breaking off, and carrying emotion – all recognizable to ancient Romans. What I found most striking, though, was the choice of silent reading marks, at times incredibly precise and particular as to what needed to be marked: there are signs to flag up the structure of a text, ranging from the overall connection to sentence links (marks signalling the beginning and ending of content or a phrase, a change of topic, or linked topics, strengthening an idea, or meditating over it – even a sign for a digression! Brackets, anyone?). There are signs for a writer’s sort of meta-comment, that is, approbation, disapproval, or denial. Like hashtags. There are signs for quarrelling with the text, or another writer’s idea that is being engaged with which are signs indicating a mistake, an exaggeration, a lack of reliability, calls for verification. There are signs which directly communicate with the imagined reader, as if there was an actual conversation happening: the ‘sign for control to impose the writer’s thought’ and the ‘sign to encourage the reader’s own thought’. And then there are signs which I love but have no idea what they are supposed to mean, such as the sign for vulnerability.

As much as I like the idea of finding punctuation marks that are germane to the language they are entering, 84 signs seems to be a tad on the exaggerated end. Either Arabic really does need so many specific ways of engagement, or al-Tuwayrani’s was a typical case of enthusiastic “bring it on!”. It was eventually French punctuation marks and their values which prevailed, helped on by narrative books like ad-Dunya fi baris by Ahmad Zaki from 1914 who uses comma, colon, and Co. as we know it throughout his novel, but adds an introduction clarifying what the signs mean. He also advocated for punctuating old manuscripts in order to preserve knowledge, which rings a bell with any medieval punctuator of classical texts. Punctuation, as much as it means introducing and registering change of whatever sort, also offers the possibility to conserve, and it does both of those seemingly contradictory things without really producing much clash and controversy.

So, writers introduced punctuation marks into Arabic around the turn of the 19th-20th century in order to subvert what they saw as the domineering influence of French. The motivation was both political and social, since easier reading also means widening the circle of textual participation to non-scholars. Partly, the concern with increasing reading speed and comfort, which was hoped to come with a concomitant increase in communication, reminds me of the connection between punctuation marks and “civilization” about which I have written here. This gives me a weird feeling, to be honest; as if punctuation somehow took part in the shady business of economic exploitation or political machineering. I do believe, though, that the efforts of Fawwaz, al-Tuwayrani, and Zaki have nobler intentions. Democratisation. Preservation and accessibility. Resisting the powers that were (and probably to a certain degree still are, see Latinized Arabic or Franco-Arabic which, more often than not, gets under people’s skin).

Two little bits of information I find quite interesting, but do not know where to weave into the above: since Arabic is written from right to left, rather than left to right, punctuation marks which are not symmetrical also swap their direction, like so: «؟»

Hebrew language - Wikiwand

Curiously, in modern Hebrew (which is also written from right to left, and of which I also know by experience that it’s hard…), the question mark retains its left-to-right directionality. My first impulse was to think, unkindly so, that the creators of Ivrit did so in order to distinguish themselves from Arabic which saw the introduction of punctuation marks at the same time, of course, as the Zionist movement, at the end of the twentieth century. A Jewish friend then pointed out that it this is probably just the case because European Jews who mostly spoke German were involved in putting together modern Hebrew, so went with what they were used to.

And the second bit is that Dana Awad, the author of the article from which most of my information originates, believes that the three literary people who were most involved in introducing punctuation into Arabic also did so in order to capture emotion ‘that are hardly expressed by words’, she writes, ‘or to avoid lengthening in expressing them’. I’ve been working on this project for exactly a year now (officially at least), and this is what I encountered time and again: emotion. Punctuation means pouring feeling into words.

It wouldn’t be true fi the opposite wouldn’t also be true: I asked an Egyptian friend about her punctuation habits in her informal texting in Arabic. She said she was just using the usual marks that she also employs in English. When I asked how she was SHOUTING in Arabic, because it doesn’t have such a thing as caps, not properly anyway, and if it’s not through caps or !!!!!!!, how does she express strong feelings?

Words, she says.


For further information, see the excellent article by Dana Awad, ‘The Evolution of Arabic Writing Due to European Influence: The case of punctuation’ in Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies 15 (2015): 117-136. Freely available online.

Nelson Mandela the Dildo Collector? The Importance of Proper Listing

It’s funny how we can get hung up on (seemingly?) small things: I often hear language isn’t logical, and one shouldn’t stand on points, in the sense of punctuation points. And yet, all those school kids getting points, in the sense of marks, off because they forgot one. Point of punctuation, that is. And I do, and I don’t agree with both points (of view); without rules of sorts, it would probably be hard to communicate in writing, but there is a fetishization around orthography and grammar that’s definitely not A Good Thing. When people (a.k.a. Lynn Truss) play grammar police, and get their knickers in a twist over cu l8er. Which is so 2000 anyway. “Proper” writing is not going to go away because we use abbreviations in texting. On the other hand, perhaps it would go away if we stopped teaching it at the same time. As always, we need to play good cop bad cop in order to wriggle through somewhere in the middle. I, for one, punctuate rhetorically. And I, one among millions of others, am an Oxford-comma-rer.

This tiny little hook of an inky smudge keeps style manuals baffled and the world in war over whether to add a comma after the coordinating conjunction before the last item in lists of at least three. That old-story book acknowledgement about thanking your parents, Ayn Rand and God. I wonder why she was chosen of all women. But there you go, through the powers of apposition, the lack of comma creates ambiguity, so it would make hereditary lines clearer if you thanked your parents, Ayn Rand, and God.

Not even the Oxford comma could improve this aberration.

Some things I didn’t know about that comma: it’s actually more in use in American than in British English – except for Oxford University Press of course which gave it its name. But only since 1978 when Peter Sutcliffe wrote a biography of the press, attributing the inauguration (though not the name) of the comma to Howard Collins who first mentions it in his guide for authors and printers in 1912. To be fair, maybe someone else invented it (Horace Hart who wrote a style guide for the press in 1905, recommending it. I’m confused, but anyway, its connection to Oxford is not old, though the comma is!).

I like it. I use it. I follow it on Twitter.

I like it, because it clearly accords each item its own space between the before and after, the previous and the last comma. And doesn’t it also look tidier? Well, not everyone thinks so. Apparently, in some journalistic circles, the Oxford comma is frowned upon, because it (supposedly) creates visual clutter. It’s probably just the single character space that it takes up and that, when all these characters taken together, would make another word or so.

What if this very circumstance sparked a revolution? And not just any, the Russian Revolution that would eventually lead to – well, all sorts of thing.

Throughout the nineteenth-century, there were strikes by workers and serfs here and there in feudal Russia. Then, just after the turn of the century, the effect of those accumulated strikes galvanized in the year of 1905 which saw work boycotts from January through to autumn. In October, the typesetters of Ivan Sytin’s printing house in Moscow demanded to be paid not only for words, but for punctuation too. For commas. Which makes a lot of sense: what do they care about words? It’s not like they’re ancient Greeks, writing without any marks or spaces at all. The typesetters’ strike spread throughout all professional fields from bakers to bankers, and throughout the country, most importantly paralysing the relatively new but already key lifeline of the railway. Shortly after, Tsar Nicholas II issues a manifesto which would become Russia’s first constitution, paving the way for the demise of the monarchy. The strike was so effective that Trotsky is known to have said that ‘a strike which started over punctuation marks ended felling absolutism’.

And if that wasn’t enough to convince anyone of the importance of points, there’s more to come: a pioneer of human rights activism, Irish consul to the British Empire Roger Casement was hanged by a comma: while working for the Foreign Office, Casement continually observed and made public the atrocities of colonialism, first in Belgium, then in South America. His 1904 Casement Report went viral (as we say today), and effectively forced the hand of King Leopold to give up the Congo. He also uncovered the enslavement of Putumayo Indians in Peru, working on British rubber plantations, but, funnily, nothing came of that… Casement returned to Ireland and became involved in the struggle for independence. In the first world war, while the United Kingdom was at war with Germany, he went on the continent to agree on weapons deliveries between Germany and Irish independence fighters, and discuss how to recruit Irish prisoners-of-war in Germany for the cause, but before any significant deal happened, he was apprehended by the British intelligence, imprisoned, and hanged for treason (note my Oxford comma!). The accusation was based on the 1351 Treason Act. The defence tried to get him free based on punctuation. The act reads thus:

Treason means ‘if a man do levy war against our Lord the King in his realm, or be adherent to the King’s enemies in his realm, giving to them aid and comfort in the realm, or elsewhere, and thereof be properly attainted of open deed by the people of their condition’.

It took me a few readings to understand, but it basically means that if you incite against the king or rub shoulders with the king’s enemies, or help them, you’re ‘attainted’, you’re a traitor, too. Now, the crux is where you do that, and here punctuation comes in actually to create ambiguity rather than alleviate it (which it mostly is desired to do, though more often than not doesn’t). Casement’s defence argued that the clause or elsewhere only pertains to aid and comfort, not to be adherent to the King’s enemies, because it’s separated with a comma. Hence, Casement did adhere to the King’s enemies but not in the realm, but elsewhere (in Germany). Hence, he’s not attainted. Re-read that a couple of times, it’s a messy business.

I kind of feel that the defence’s arguing was more the case if it had been the opposite, if there had been *no* comma. As it is, the comma before or makes it refer back to all clauses, but not strongly so. – The wording in and of itself is ambiguous.

Perhaps, Casement would have been able to have at least the death sentence turned into long-term imprisonment, but the general mood celebrating him as a hero based on his reports changed when the so-called Black Diaries were brought forth which recorded homosexual activities (in, at times, great detail and explicitness), and this when homosexuality was against the law (witness the Oscar Wilde case). Up to this day it’s unclear if these diaries were indeed Casement’s or if they had been forged to taint his name. In any case, he did lose, and he was hanged. His comment:

 “God deliver from such antiquaries as these, to hang a man’s life upon a comma and throttle him with a semi-colon.”

If in doubt, though, choose the latter. Semicolons come with their own brand of love and hate, but they do really close the case concerning what makes an entity with what else. Consider the Oakhurst Dairy Missing Comma Case: In 2014, 75 truck drivers sued their employer, Oakhurst Dairy, for outstanding pay of 10 million dollars, hinging on the lack of serial comma regarding overtime which, according to Maine legislature, is not remunerated for:

‘The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

  1. Agricultural produce
  2. Meat and fish products; and
  3. Perishable foods’

So far, so much unpaid work, squeezing people out in order to make them speed up. There is an interpretative gap, though, in the punctuation and grammar of packing for shipment or distribution: without comma before or, it reads as if packing governs both shipment and distribution, in the sense of packing for distribution. Not distribution itself. Hence, the truck drivers (whose task is to distribute, not necessarily to pack for distribution) should be paid for their overtime happening when they are distributing by driving around in their lorries. The suit was at first dismissed, based on the reasoning that, if one were to understand packing for shipment or distribution as one entity, the list becomes asyndetic, which is unusual for listing (of the legal kind, presumably thinks the poet).

But (praise be to the grammar gods!) the judge of the next instance knew a thing or two about the subtle delights of language, and ruled in the drivers’ favour: since the comma is missing *and* distribution is a noun and hence more on a level with shipment rather than the list of nominalized verbs before (canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing), the Dairy does owe their employees. The case settled for 5 million dollars in 2017, and the law was changed compartmentalizing each activity by semicolons and swapping the confusing noun for a nominalized verb. There’s safety in semicolons!

And what does all of this have to do with Mandela and dildos?!? Well. One perfect The Times TV listing summarizes a documentary in which Peter Ustinov ‘retraces a journey made by Mark Twain a century ago. The highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.’

I’m just going to leave it there (adding that I couldn’t verify the story).

Punctuation and our worry over it strikes again, even though some people *pretend* they don’t give a fuck.

Note the opening lines.

Thankfully, front singer of Vampire Weekend Ezra Rose explains: “I think the song is more about not giving a fuck than about Oxford commas.”

The Scandalization of Punctuation: Dot. Dot. Dot.

Back in early autumn last year, I came across the Brilliant Club, a charity which sends researchers into schools, teaching their work to 14-year olds. The groups are small, and half of the participants come from less advantaged backgrounds. The kids visit your institution at the beginning and at the end of the seven-weeks course, write an essay (with proper marks!), and have a graduation. It’s hoped this experience encourages not only university applications particularly from those pupils who may not naturally think of that future, but also applications to highly selective universities like Cambridge and Oxford.

I thought that’s a great way to give back (without UK funding, I’d never have been able to do my Master’s or PhD). What goes around, comes around. It’s also an opportunity to spread the word about punctuation, I thought, and develop my own course. Brilliant Club offers teacher training which I am really keen on, too – and lo and behold, my students loved the engaging ideas I got from that week-end.

Developing the course beforehand was intense…I’ve taught school kids before, but it’s always hard to pitch the level. You basically design all in advance, a booklet, with images, tasks, texts, whatever you want to put in. If something ends up not working as you thought it would, there’s only so much alternative stuff to do about it. So a lot of thought goes into the planning, and a lot of work into mounting the natural obstacle of finding authorial editions (the ever-painful drudgery of a punctuation-detective). After the typical deadline flurry, though, I ended up being really proud of my handbook. You Have a Point: Punctuation in Literature.

Teaching happened between January and March. It’s an introductory session, followed by three full-on sessions, a recap, a one-to-one essay draft session, and a one-to-one essay feedback session (this year happening online of course).

I let the kids find out what punctuation is or could be in the first session, and then treated two marks per session with some pretty tough nuts as far as literature was concerned (Hemingway, Joyce, Woolf, and of course ee cummings). I tried to thread in hands-on essay-writing skills like writing a thesis statement, engaging with secondary criticism, and referencing. Their final assignment was an essay on an extract of On the Road.

I’ve just finished marking the essays; there was some really impressive work there. Apart from one  surprise (semicolon appreciation all around!) and one non-surprise (confusion between dash and hyphen – also all around), two main things crystallized which made me very happy indeed:

An awareness of the historical development of punctuation, all with addition of spaces, dots, and parentheses according to need and technological innovation. And an acute sense that the pupils displayed of how punctuation creates pace and captures or transmits emotion. My work is done here.

Oh, and of course, the beautiful typo in one essay: the scandalization of punctuation. I want to write thar eighteenth-century epistolary novel.

Splendid Isolation Book Two: Punctuation and Progress

As we continue social distancing from others and working at home in our pyjamas (welcome to the life of an academic), I’m continuing my punctuation book review with a handy little quarto by Norwegian media researcher Bard Bord Michalsen. Signs of Civilization: How Punctuation Changed History (2019) intrigued me for its provocative title. Apart from the inevitable whistle-stop tour through the history of punctuation, I hoped the book would explore both what it thinks civilization is, and how that is changed or not through such seemingly innocuous minuscule semantically meaningless marks like dots and dashes. I say the book, but it’s of course the author who fails to live up to expectations.

Signs of Civilisation

Of course, like all punctuation books for the general public (or indeed all books on the topic for whatever readership?), the author feels the need to both apologize for his quirky subject matter and convince that, yes, these random scatterings of ‘flyshit’ are actually worth giving attention  to (not my genius words on semicolons, alas, but Edward Abbey). I expected that. I expected a certain kind of bouncy breezy tone. But I didn’t expect the astonishingly superficial approach to “civilization”, that is, the lack of any approach at all.

Life is short and art is long, so a thorough unpacking of that most loaded of terms would be misplaced in such a book as this; yet one wishes at least some kind of acknowledgement, some nod, towards the complexity of the concept. Because of course, civilization (whatever that is) is desirable according to the book, and of course, that desirable civilization (whatever that is) is Western.

An ‘advanced punctuation system has been nothing less than one of the driving forces in the development of our entire western civilization.’ P.6

The Greeks didn’t have much punctuation to speak of, and were pretty advanced. So were the Arabs in Spain, or the Persians, whose languages, perhaps, have a grammar that simply doesn’t need punctuation to clarify. Perhaps our old English is just too weak, and in need of non-alphabetical little helpers. On Arabic punctuation, and grammatical parsing, I refer you to future posts. And anyway, can one not speak of a society as a civilization without writing? Can one please not speak about civilization at all?

While never stating as much, I think the book means to say that punctuation enables greater speed in reading (also, amongst others, via silent reading), and greater clarity of understanding, hence smoother communication overall. Smoother communication leads to better relationships over long distances, which leads to increased trade and economy, which encourages improvements in technology, which feeds back into communication making that faster and smoother.

And here I am, reading on and on, patiently asking myself when the author is going to speak about the messiness that characterises communication. Most of the time anyway. The unintended glitches, the deliberate obfuscations, ambitious ambiguities. Life and literature. The stuff that’s more interesting than law and order.

Essentially, the driving assumption of the book is nefarious and simply untrue Whiggish history: namely that we move towards improvement, and improvement is clarity, capitalism, light. is It calls punctuation ‘the icing on the cake’, providing the ‘finishing touch’ (p.6) to writing. That both means we have stopped innovating and speak like Shakespeare (which is when the author locates that fixing and icing), and it means punctuation is an afterthought of language, rather than a co-evolutionary phenomenon. It’s all just too neat and pretty.

The rest of the book is an innocent assembly of anecdotes (such as Kurt Vonnegut, describing the semi-colon as bisexual because it can’t decide it wants to belong to the light comma pause or the heavy colon).

The core tenet of Signs of Civilization is intriguing: take punctuation seriously. Take writing seriously. But it fails to deliver a thoughtful, (self-)critical exploration of its own terms that it cannot even find its way into introductory courses on the topic. Thus I turn to the magisterial David Crystal and his exquisite book on the topic.

Stop. Start Again.

One of the more straightforward tasks of punctuation is to clarify the boundaries between words and sentences in a written text. Visual cues are spaces between words, and marks, such as hyphens, commas, full stops. In contrast to scriptio continua of classical times, whenwordswouldbestrungtogetherwithoutsuchspacesorsigns, it was impossible to sight-read a text. So, punctuation helps us realize where one word ends, and another one starts. This makes relative sense. But what about speech?

How is it possible that, when we speak, we don’t have such signposts as punctuation marks or spaces telling us about word segments? Well, because we don’t need them. Even when someone speaks one word after another without change of tone and without pause between words or sentences at all, the hearer can still tell the difference between them.

Most of the time anyway. A notable exception being ‘ice cream’ and ‘I scream’. Of course, even if the hearer did stumble across the two homophones the first time round, they’re likely to correct their mishearing through the context. And apart from that, recordings have in fact shown that there is a difference between the /ai/ sound of ‘ice’ and ‘I’. There is a greater emphasis on the verb, and a greater pause between pronoun and verb, and the equivalent sounds of the nice dessert.

The /ai/ of the pronoun is longer, and the verb is stressed.

So, although there’s plenty of potential for comedy in the flowing together of ‘might rain’ and ‘my train’ or ‘that’s tough’ and ‘that stuff’, and indeed ‘fork handle’ and ‘four candle’, we’re generally pretty adapt at “juncture”, the speech boundary where one word ends and another starts in continual talk. Tools of juncture can be minuscule pausing, changes of pitch, gesture. And probably also familiarity with words, and the language that contains them.

The same probably counts for music. I remember participating in an experiment about making sense of unfamiliar musical phrases when I was a student: you had to listen to music from China and India (if you were unfamiliar with that music), and push a button whenever you thought a musical phrase had ended. I have forgotten what the outcome was, and the purpose, but I distinctly remember the feeling of being completely lost, trying to listen for some kind of sense, or at least repetition of a sound I had already heard, but all my attempts at realizing the music’s structure dissolved in increasingly frantic pushing of buttons, and eventually giving up to befuddled confusion. I just couldn’t read that music.

So, what we do naturally, without ever thinking about it, and without seemingly spending much energy on, juncture that is, is quite extraordinary really.

Just like turn-taking, the bigger sister of juncture, as it were. That’s us taking turns in a conversation, the transition from me to you, and back to me.

Telling quite when somebody is (or rather will be) finished depends on gestures, facial expressions, gaze, grammatical cues, pitch, and (very much so) pauses. Those pauses, though, are incredibly short, and, amazingly, nearly universal in all kinds of languages. 200 milliseconds. That’s how long (short!) it takes to pick up the mantle of speech of someone else and make your own contribution. But because it takes three times the time to retrieve even a single word from memory, and get ready to say it, that’s 600 milliseconds, and some 1500 milliseconds to get a short clause onto our tongue, we by force need to prepare our answer while the other is speaking. Else conversations would take for ever.

This simultaneous comprehension and production of language does not mean not listening. It simply suggests how incredibly adept we are at talking, talking together, that is. Our brains are working hard to minimize the gap between conversational turns, trying to smooth that tricky transition period. There’s always something that can go wrong when we move from one state of being to another. Witness all those promising revolutions turning sour.

Transitions create a momentary vacuum into which something, someone, else can step, pulling the flow of what should be into what could be. Something else. Transitions are the vulnerable Achilles heel in the body of talk.

Perhaps, there is also opportunity in that gap. Someone can seize the word whose turn it wasn’t.

Interruptions might happen, regardless of pauses, effectively forcing a turn.

Overlap occurs when we wrongly predict, or when someone keeps talking although their cues suggested they wouldn’t.

Le Jeu royal de la paume, Charles Hulpeau, Paris: 1612.

There’s lots that can go (productively) wrong in turn-taking, but the overall bent remains: humans are good talkers, and we’re smooth-talkers, bouncing the tennis ball back and forth effortlessly, as Montaigne imagined 400 years ago.

And the role of punctuation in all of that? Well, since speech comes first, and writing is a representation of that (first and foremost, at least), punctuation imitates what we do without thinking about it. The spaces between words signalling their boundaries are the juncture, the rest of the marks indicate those things helping us take turns: question and exclamation mark symbolize a rise in pitch and final emphasis; comma, colon, and semi-colon create different kinds of light pauses after which there may be a turn, but the transition is iffy; a full stop is the big pause signalling a definite turn; a dash represents a rebel turn, an interruption.

I like the thought of punctuation being rebellious. It’s so much more than clarifying signposts, or self-effacing functional traffic lights managing the flow of words, the less visible the better. Punctuation, as much as junctures and turn-taking gaps, can also be stumbling blocks purposefully hindering speech. They show a red light, but push you over the crossroads anyway. And then you’re off to something way more interesting.

For how turn-taking plays out in drama, especially Shakespeare, check out the brand-new book by my friend and former colleague Dr Oliver Morgan.

Splendid Isolation

Like most of us, I haven’t been able to work much these past two weeks. The escalation of the current situation makes everything else small. So it’s been a bit of a drag to open a book, or even think of research. Not because I don’t like it, or don’t believe in it anymore, but because it’s what I’ve done before when we were still allowed to hug, see friends, travel, and thousands of people had not been dead. So, I find myself doing things that I usually not do, like stress-tidying or stress-binge-watching of series I watched as a teenager. Extraordinary behaviour for extraordinary times. Or is that an excuse?

After all, I’ve got three lively books on punctuation and typography which I’ve been eager to read for a while: Sarah Hyndman’s Why Fonts Matter.  Bard Borch Michalsen’s Signs of Civilization: How Punctuation Changed History, and David Crystal’s You Have a Point.

London, 2016.

I started with the beautiful Hyndman book which focusses on how typeface influences our behaviour and understanding of the world. It’s full of engaging little exercises like musing about what flavour certain typefaces taste like, or how advertisement communicates the “character” of its product through typeface. Hyndman’s blog is a treasure-trove of quirky information and exciting experiments on typography, emotion, cognition, and just generally anything text design.

I whole-heartedly recommend the book for its creativity and gorgeous looks. At times, I wished myself to see more depth in terms of just quite why typeface is so powerful, has affective agency, can cause indignation and discord. A supposedly invisible thing, a transparent vessel holding words which we consider the real deal. Just like punctuation. Typography and punctuation are both under-estimated subtleties of text.

Playful and happy-go-lucky Cocon, developed by Dutch designer Evert Bloemsman in 2001.

Unfortunately, although certainly not intended, the book makes clear just how sexist typography is, that is, our attitudes to it: the book is rich, a little too rich even, in tasks of attaching expectations to a certain typeface and then checking your answer against what others have said in pre-publication surveys. For example, what job would the person do judged on the typeface of their business card. Inevitably, the curvy flourishing typefaces such as Garamond italic evoke ideas of traditionally female jobs, such as fashion stylist, planning country club galas, nail painter, hostess, beautician, looking pretty, being an expert on love. No kidding. These were people’s answers, and honestly, my own were somewhere on that scale, too. Cocon was judged to be a baker, carer, dancer, ditzy receptionist, manicurist, or dog groomer.

Developed by the French Didot family between 1784-1811. Originally signalling reason, enlightenment, and neo-classical virtues, Didot now connotes style and fashion, having been adopted by magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

Didot, the typeface most often called “feminine” by the book (or the people taking part in the survey’s on which it is based), had its fair share of hostess and hairdresser, but at least culled some more high-end jobs, too, like academic, magazine editor, and, in a desperate attempt to somehow make it good, ‘female CEO’.

Quintessentially English? London-born Clarendon, 1845, Besley and Fox.

This persistent sexist strain seriously dampened my enjoyment of the book. It’s as if typography was all surface and no depth – nothing wrong with surfaces per se, but…when it comes to perpetuating stereotypes we have acquired throughout life…well. The same mechanism of thinking Clarendon is serious and professional and Cocon suggests looks and well-being (again, nothing wrong with that, but but but) — that is the same mechanism of sexism: there is nothing biological, and nothing natural about any of this. It’s habit, and habit only. Or is it? Are there not studies that we connect round shapes to sounds like /o/ for which our mouth becomes round too? Witness the word “blob”. And zig-zaggy shapes “sound” sharp. The bouba and kiki effect. So, one imagines the line of connection goes “round letter shape means round body shape means woman”. It’s all a bit depressing.

I guess if I’m asking the book these questions, or typography rather, I have to ask myself questions of why I think surfaces are shallow are bad.

Eventually, things are more complicated, and, just like the many layers of human skin which communicate with each other, surface and depth are relational, and gradients on a spectrum, are themselves, and are yet intimately connected. When does surface end and depth start?

Apart from all of that, I was quite struck by the choice to put a full stop at the end of the book’s title, and in red no less. Why Fonts Matter. Same goes for the back of the cover— ‘(and why they are lots of fun.)’ – full stop this time in back, in order to distinguish it from the white letters and red background.

In stark contrast to that choice, there is not a single full stop where it’s grammatically required, that is, at the end of proper sentences, e.g. ‘A CIP catalogue record is available from the British Library’ in the flyleaf. All that publishing information in full sentences lacks a full stop. Weird.

Seeing that Hyndman is a designer, she will surely have wanted and had maximum authority over the entire looks of her book, I thought, so I’ve written to her and asked. She said the publishing house passed it onto designers who took the decisions, so I wrote to Penguin who said they’d ask. To be continued.

And now, onto the next book and the next week in isolation.

The ‘sensuall-lyfe’ of Punctuation: Hyphen Part 3

Since it’s early stages of my project, I am focussing on brackets in romance in prose, but eventually I’d like to cover brackets in all kinds of romance, prose, poetry, and drama. So, as preparation for that second stage (and because it’s fun), I called up two manuscripts of Harington’s Orlando Furioso translation. One, a beautifully-bound clean book in secretary hand, both by Harington himself and his scribe (Bodleian, MS Rawl. poet. 125.). One a manuscript by a private person, one Richard Newell who transcribed choice passages of the poem, putting them together with copies of letters and accounts (MS Malone 2).

The book is quite a big folio, and wrapped in smooth but ungainly vellum. A book of use. Around ten to thirteen pages at the front and back are written in mixed secretary-italic hand with a fairly thick nib, and still dark black ink. The letters on the one side, and the accounts on the other, are dated to 1623.

Sandwiched between these letters and accounts, however, the largest part of the manuscript, is a selections of Harington’s 1591 English translation of Ariosto’s 1532 Italian romance Orlando Furioso. At the beginning of the tidy, nearly faultless transcription in a fairly small, neat italic hand is the date, 1645, and even the months that the writer worked on it (January and February). The ink is quite fair, and/or strongly faded, making it hard to read sometimes.

Newell picks and chooses from across the work, usually focussing on sets of scenes, or descriptions, rarely single stanzas. Scenes will have titles for improved finding, and he is careful to include the stanza number, ensuring accessibility for the sake of comparison, or re-reading of the printed text. This was a conscientious transcriber.

There area marginal inscriptions, pointing to the Italian, or commenting (inevitably, on the racy action of certain kinds of merrymaking!). I didn’t yet compare this manuscript to printed versions of the work, which would be key in terms of discovering whether those notes are from Newell himself or copied from the printed text (or an intermediate manuscript?). This would also be key in relation to the bracket. There are quite a few in this copy, and they are always carefully opened and closed, much in comparison to an Arcadia MS at the Bodleian that I recently looked at that had orphaned bracket halves dangling alone all over the place (entry on this to come soon!).

That work is for later, though. What struck me most with this manuscript was the persistent hyphenation of adjective-noun-combinations. Not always, but constant enough to point to a habit, and perhaps one of rhyme and reason.

In the ‘Description of Aleyna’, her hair is compared to ‘wire of beaten-gold’. Is ‘beaten-gold’ different from ‘beaten gold’? Perhaps.

I thought that, maybe, adding a hyphen between adjective and following noun is just a personal quirk, a slip of the eye or the hand even. But Newell is too thorough, and the phenomenon is too consistent to be accidental. On the other hand, it’s not always the case. Aleyna’s description continues:

Her lovely-Cheekes with shew of modest shame With roses and with Lillies painted are’.

Why ‘lovely-Cheekes’ and not ‘modest-shame’? Perhaps cheeks can only be lovely, while there are different kinds of shame. Or is this proof Newell’s hyphens are, well, not that deliberate after all?

I’d have to really look through the entire copy in order to assess that with more grounding in numbers of incidents. As it is, though, only because each and every case has not yet been judged, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Because it is. There. ‘Lovely-Cheekes’.  

My particular favourite comes in the description of two lovers, sporting a carefree life devoted to such very naughty things as hunting and frequent changing of clothes. And, of course, kissing in a way that makes it impossible to tell which tongue belongs to whom. We call that the French way.

In short: they lead a truly ‘sensuall-lyfe’.

See line 5.

Wrapped in each other, tongues twisting in French kiss, the hyphen makes their physical bonding visible. The distinction between adjective modifying noun disappear; the discrete boundaries between bodies do. It’s all one thing, the platonic whole, hyphenated sex. Sensuall-lyfe.

Bracket Spotting

Yesterday, I chatted to a friend via text, trying to find a day to take a walk together, and touch base. We hadn’t seen each other for a very long time, although we live in the same town (entirely my fault!). Sunday, I said to her, would be best, as on all the other days of the week I “had to work in the library, looking at manuscripts”. She, ever the scholar, replied thus:

had to –> get to <3

She’s right of course. What a great privilege to play with old books! I’m currently looking at MS e.Mus.37, a copy of the Old Arcadia, not Feuillerat’s base text. Luckily not, since this one’s hardly got any brackets at all.

Poring over the beautiful secretary hand, I tried to spot the bracket. An early modern where is Waldo. Progress was slow, and the work draining. I wondered why, and then suddenly realized that the habits, that is, the script, of secretary hand makes it hard for the eye to tell when exactly the inky curves are parts of letters and when not.

Mostly, what tripped me up by posing like half a bracket is the form of the ampersand with a belly curving to the left, like so:

(This photo is from MS Jesus 150 in the Bodleian Library.)

Then the ascending hook of the spurred ‘a’, a slightly old-fashioned form, indicating that the scribe must have learnt to write in the middle of the sixteenth-century, rather than towards its end.

The infralinear lobes of ‘h’, ‘g’, and ‘y’ also routinely make me look twice, biting into the lines below them as they do.

Notice the ‘g’ of ‘grew’ on the top line, and ‘h’ of ‘hew’ below.
Notice the ‘y’ of ‘my’ on the top line, and ‘sely’ just below.

Sometimes the bracket is incredibly thin, like an eye-lash having floated onto the page, or a slender piece of fibre having swum to the surface of the paper during its production. This is owing to the angle of the quill’s nib, which could scratch the paper, and not release as much ink.

And sometimes, brackets were plainly, and simply forgotten. In this particular manuscript, there are orphaned brackets a-plenty, suggesting either a certain carelessness in copying, or haste, or lack of attention. Presumably, the first is the case, since there are not many brackets at all in this Arcadia copy (though that might be owing to its copy-text). Perhaps, an already bracket-weak text, then, was further de-bracketted by the cavalier attitude towards brackets by the scribe of e.Mus.37, resulting in a handsome and clean, but very lightly punctuated piece.

The question remains whether we should consider punctuation, and the bracket as most visible sign, most squarely present, whether we should think of it as accidental and thus negligible in terms of editing and interpreting, or whether we should give attention to what seems part of the minutiae of the work, what seems, and maybe is, vulnerable to change upon transmission. Part of my project also means doing exactly that, making a case for taking those small not-so-small elements of a text like punctuation seriously. Especially when it’s systematic. Especially when in- and exclusion might tell us something about the line of origin of manuscripts.

Punctuation does make a difference. Like Harold Pinter says, ‘you can’t fool the critics for long. They can tell a dot form a dash a mile off.’ And the readers, too.

The Early Modern What-d’ye-call-it Hyphen, Part 2

In a previous post, I wrote about how we are using fewer and fewer hyphens these days. But going back in time does not mean returning to a hyphenated (literary) world either! Lately, I was playing around with some Renaissance manuscripts in the Bodleian library in Oxford, and discovered some curious punctuation habits (including hyphenation) by one prolific commonplace book keeper, called William Sancroft, some time archbishop of Canterbury (between 1678 and 1690).

MS Sancroft 29 is one of his commonplace books in which he excerpts literary quotations for a variety of issues and situations (such as ‘Angry and Waspish’, or ‘Lust’).

The length of quotation varies, ranging from just one line to several. How far Sancroft preserves the original quotation also depends. Since he’s excerpting for use, he’s happy to change the pieces a bit, especially the grammar, changing pronouns, and syntax, so that it becomes a little hard to find the source text through EEBO. Most of Sancroft 29 are dramatic extracts, most from Shakespeare and other Renaissance plays. Only rarely does Sancroft record in the margin where the quotations are from, which makes for some exciting detective work.

A rare recording of the excerpts’ origins, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, unfortunately upside down.

As I familiarized myself with the volume, I realized that Sancroft is careful about punctuation, using the whole array at his disposal, ranging from question and exclamation marks to brackets, dashes, apostrophes, commas, colons, semi-colons, and, yes, hyphens, too. I was curious whether Sancroft copied the original punctuation (presumably from their printed sources), or whether he changed it according to his own needs and habits. And the latter is what he did.

I stumbled across a proliferation of hyphens, and started to track down their sources. Here’s one from As You Like It, Act II, scene iv, where the two Arden shepherds Silvius and Corin are arguing about love, and how the elderly Corin cannot understand young Silvius’ pains for unrequited passion for Phoebe.

Sil. No Corin, being old, thou canst not guesse,

Though in thy youth thou wast as true a louer

As euer sigh’d vpon a midnight pillow:

I checked the spelling of all three first folios, and the word remain two. But Sancroft writes this:

See top line.

As true a lover, as ever sigh’d upon a midnight-pillow

The lines before and after are from different plays; unsuccessful in most attempts to discover the sources, I quickly gave up, and focussed on the juicy punctuation bits.

Sancroft has at least two more instances of adding hyphens between compound words, including ‘parish-church’, and ‘wits-pedlar’ in Love’s Labour’s Lost. The most delightful example, though, remains the outsized ‘Dort-what-d’ye-call’ from an unidentified play.

See line 5 from the bottom up.

 This is a lovely example of hyper-hyphenation which I unfortunately cannot read very well…Dort? I don’t know. Always the sixteenth-century secretary-hand-er. Italic is just too young for me! I particularly love this example, though. It feels so modern. Like when we say ‘what’s-his-name’.

In my previous post, I briefly spoke about the difference that this little horizontal line between two words makes: it links them in a little visual and cognitive burst in a way that a blank space simply can’t. There’s some crucial reason why two particular words are being connected like that, and it’s up to us to find that out. It’s not just a pillow, but a pillow for sleeplessness, but not just that, it’s for that particular insomnia coming in the middle of the night, when it’s neither yesterday nor tomorrow, and we’re locked in the fuzzy transitional zone of ambiguity. That’s when we lie on that pillow, that midnight-pillow. The hyphen makes a metaphor legible.

Sancroft, in his punctuation choices, intuits meaning, and increases its perceptible nature by adding that little belt of a hyphen. Of course, Shakespeare might have included a hyphen in his manuscript, and the lack of it is a personal choice of the type-setter’s taste, or the practicalities of printing. Of course, Sancroft might not have worked from the folios. But he can’t have used the quartos, at least not for As You Like It, because none existed. He might have worked from manuscript texts with their own punctuation, borrowed them from someone else, and just copied that, but one assumes he worked from the printed texts, since he did bequeath his enormous book collection of 6.000 volumes to Emmanuel’s College, Cambridge. And in any case, Sancroft was quite cavalier with the “correctness” of the original quotations, re-jigging words as he pleased, so why painstakingly keep the punctuation from someone else for something he was going to change anyway?

No, Bishop Sancroft chose to add hyphens, and although it might seem a small matter, it’s actually a big one: adding punctuation is not incidental, and not accidental. It’s a statement. It’s appropriating a text, words, some else’s words, and doing something to those words, and those meanings. Adding punctuation is literary criticism right there.

For more on the Sancroft manuscripts, see Laura Estill, Dramatic Extracts in Seventeenth-Century Manuscripts (Lanham, 2015).

Hyphen Confusion (or should that be ‘Hyphen-Confusion’?)

Note the ‘=’ sign commonly used as hyphen in the early modern period. (Pudsey commonplace book, ca 1600, Bodleian Library).

Recently, our old neglected friend the hyphen has made a brief re-appearance (oh, there it goes again!) in the BBC news about Labour party leadership contender Rebecca Long-Bailey, also known as Long Bailey. She doesn’t care.

Double-barelled names are becoming more and more current as society gets used to women not changing their last names upon getting married, but double-barelling it with their husband’s (sometimes, rarely, joined by those very husbands!), or passing their maiden name on to their double-barelled children. Not even speaking of all those other kinds of non-heterosexual non-married unions that, thankfully, are possible today. For the record, double-barelled names are the norm in Iberian cultures. It’s all got to do with the level of importance families have, and advances in gender equality. Or should that be gender-equality?

And here be the crux: rules for hyphenation are pretty loose. Of course, some rules make a lot of sense in the name of avoiding confusion, homographic and otherwise, such as ‘un-ionized’ and ‘unionized’. I also love ‘man-eating shark’ and ‘man eating shark’. It also makes sense to avoid the ungainly looks of vowel clash (‘anti-inflammatory’, as opposed to ‘anti inflammatory’, or even worse ‘antiinflammatory’). I once saw someone write ‘no-one’ and never looked back.

Apart from the prefix- and disambiguation-use of the hyphen (and the floating hyphen that just occurred), hyphenation is pretty much a matter of personal choice. New words tend to be hyphenated until people get used to them: think of us 90s kids laboriously typing out ‘e hyphen mail’ before we became stressed adults hardly having time to write ’email’. More than habituation, it’s the increase, speed, and informality of digital communication which are ringing the death knell to the humble but crucial hyphen. Nobody (make that ‘no-one’) has time for that little parallel line anymore, and so, the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary of 2007 has kicked out hyphenation of a whopping 16.000 words, including such gems as ‘pot-belly’. ‘Pot belly’ is just not the same!

And truly, it is not the same.

Hyphens are ambivalent creatures: they separate – and they connect.

They help us see through the thicket of words precisely by disconnecting the connection, and at the same time, they connect what’s previously been disconnected.

Punctuation status: it’s complicated.

So, if the hyphen highlights simultaneous (dis)connection, then, one imagines, it makes a lot of difference if nouns like ‘pot-belly’ or ‘ice-cap’ have an actual umbilical cord, a visual rope that ties them together. A wedding-ring as it were.

A hyphen is the simile of punctuation marks. It establishes a sudden, unexpected link, a levelness, balancing this against that. This is like that, and that is like this. Both terms still remain discreet. A simile is not a metaphor, merging, as it does, two original terms in mysterious ways.

A hyphen is just that, a double-barelled name that tells you that this child came from these two people. On second thoughts, hyphens aren’t even similes, they’re the bringers of real equality. There’s no comparison implied. There’s no directionality, object A being seen in terms of object B. Both words before and after the hyphen, no matter how long or short they are, no matter if they’re Latinate, or Germanic, or even as small asthe ‘in’ of the ‘mother-in-law’ — hyphens establish and maintain equality. Any words, all words, just…connect.

And doesn’t Sidney say compounding is the beauty mark of any language? Let’s keep compounding with that little unassuming line hovering in the horizon. Unassuming, but adamant. Here to stay.

For the history of the hyphen, check out Shady Characters by Keith Houston

Interesting starting points for more research could be: linguistic/cognitive science studies on the hyphen slowing down the speed of reading, and the implications of that for readers of different ages and visual abilities, as has been done a couple of times in the community. But that’s for another post.