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.