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.