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.

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