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.

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