“Behind every punctuation mark lies a thousand stories,” writes David Crystal in his new book, Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation (Profile Books). He then fills the pages with the most interesting and absurd of those stories—like how a question mark became the name of a pub.

Making a Point covers more than a millennia of all the quirks and oddities of those abstract markings that stir the souls of copy editors. With wit and charm, Crystal creates a fun read about something some of us take for granted and others have taken up as their literary cross. He covers the contentious attitudes of Ben Jonson, Mark Twain, and George Orwell, the last of which waged an unceasing crusade against the semicolon. Crystal also examines how modern editors have tried to strip Emily Dickinson and Jane Austen of their idiosyncrasies, rendering a textual experience rather different than intended.

What is so remarkable about the excerpt included here is how Crystal makes us rethink the obvious: the space we take for granted, the elbow room we make between each word on the printed page. And how an internet run by unbroken streams of multi-word domain names has taken us back to the kind of space-free writing of ancient Rome—a time when the educated read aloud eloquently rather than to themselves. Crystal’s book is less a grammarian’s guide and more a cabinet of curiosities that says as much about how we think as how we write and speak.

Up on the second floor in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, in a gallery displaying artefacts from early England, there is a beautiful teardrop-shaped object. A decorated golden frame surrounds a colourful enamelled design protected by a flat panel of polished rock crystal. It shows the picture of a man dressed in a green tunic, and holding a flowered sceptre in each hand, his wide eyes gazing intently at something we do not see. And around the rim of the object, just a few millimetres thick, is an Old English inscription in Roman letters:

                                         AELFREDMECHEHTGEWYRCAN

There are no spaces between the words. Inserting these, we get

                                         AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN

                                         Alfred me ordered to make

                                          = Alfred ordered me to be made

This is King Alfred the Great, and the object has come to be called the Alfred Jewel.

It was found near Athelney Abbey in Somerset in 1693, the place where Alfred launched his successful counter-attack against the Danes in 878. There has been much debate about the identity of the man, and what the purpose of the jewel was. An important clue is the base of the object, which is in the form of a dragon-like head with a cylindrical socket in its mouth. What did that socket hold? Probably a pointer, used to help a reader to follow the lines of text in a manuscript, which would often be placed on a stand some distance away from the reader. It’s now thought the large-eyed figure represents the sense of sight. His eyes are wide open and focused because he is reading.

For people interested in English punctuation, the jewel inscription provides an important opening insight. There isn’t any. This is a sentence, but there’s no full stop. All the letters are the same, capitals, so there’s no contrast showing where the sentence begins or that Alfred is a name. And the inscription lacks what to modern eyes is the most basic orthographic device to aid reading: spaces to separate the words.

Sixty miles away, in another museum, there’s another remarkable object from Anglo-Saxon times: the Franks Casket. This is an intricately carved whalebone box that was presented to the British Museum by one of its curators, Augustus Franks, in 1867. Each side of the box displays scenes from Roman, Jewish, Christian, and Germanic traditions, accompanied by an explanatory inscription in English and Latin. The English words are written in runes, and if I transcribe a few in their Roman letter equivalents, they would look like this:

                      HERFEGTAP+TITUSENDGIUPEASU

Once again, there are no word-spaces. Inserting them, we get

                      HER FEGTAÞ +TITUS END GIUÞEASU

                      Here fight Titus and Jews

It is a description of the capture of Jerusalem by Emperor Titus in AD 70. (The letter Þ represents a ‘th’ sound.)

This state of affairs is common in the inscriptions of the period. Many have no spacing or punctuation marks at all. Today, word-spaces are such an obvious and universal feature of the written language that we can easily forget they are there, and ignore their role as a device of punctuation. But a word-space is just as much a punctuation feature as is its close relative, the hyphen.

Word-spaces are the norm today; but it wasn’t always so. It’s not difficult to see why. We don’t actually need them to understand language. We don’t use them when we speak, and fluent readers don’t put pauses between words as they read aloud. Read this paragraph out loud, and you’ll probably pause at the commas and full stops, but you won’t pause between the words. They run together. So, if we think of writing purely as a way of putting speech down on paper, there’s no reason to think of separating the words by spaces. And that seems to be how early writers thought, for unspaced text (often called, in Latin, scriptura continua) came to be a major feature of early Western writing, in both Greek and Latin. From the first century AD we find most texts throughout the Roman Empire without words being separated at all. It was thus only natural for missionaries to introduce unspaced writing when they arrived in England.

Writing in antiquity was viewed by most people as a guide to reading aloud. Today, we tend to read silently, privately, rapidly. We can skim through text if we wish, omitting portions. In early Greek and Roman  civilization, people  routinely read aloud to audiences in displays of oratory, every syllable was valued, and eloquence was highly rated. No skimming then. A text would have been well prepared before being read in public, so that it became more like a musical score, reminding the reader what to say next. In such circumstances, experienced readers wouldn’t need word-spaces or other marks. Some influential writers, indeed, poured scorn on punctuation. Cicero, for example, thought that the rhythm of a well-written sentence was enough to tell someone how to bring it to an effective close. Punctuation marks were unnecessary.

But without punctuation of any kind, readers would have to do their homework to avoid unexpected miscues. We would have to do our homework too, if we had no word-spacing today. Faced with the sentence

                                            therapistsneedspecialtreatment

we need to know if this is a text about sex crimes or about speech pathology before we can correctly read it aloud. Early writers on oratory and rhetoric, such as Aristotle and Quintilian, often illustrated the dangers of misreading an unpunctuated text, and stressed the need for good preparation. Familiarity, they hoped, would breed content.

We can carry out an experiment to show how familiarity with a text helps our reading of it, even if it is unspaced. Take a text you know well, and write it down without word-spaces, then try reading it aloud. Like this:

                                            tobeornottobethatisthequestion

                                            ourfatherwhoartinheavenhallowedbethyname

                                            jackandjillwentupthehilltofetchapailofwater

Our knowledge of the content enables us to read it quickly. But with a bit more effort we can do this even if we don’t know the text in advance. In fact, this is something we’re increasingly doing these days, as a result of the Internet.

Domain names don’t use word-spaces. Consider the following addresses:

                             www.davidcrystal.com

                             www.iloveshakespeare.com

                             www.thisisanexampleofapossiblelongdomainname.com

It may take us a millisecond or two longer to read these strings, but we can do it. Scriptura continua is back!

 

Further Reading

David Crystal. 2012. The Story of English in 100 Words. Profile Books.

David Crystal. 2013. The Singular History of English Spelling. Profile Books.