Brief History of Punctuation: From Greeks to Geeks
Updated: Jul 10, 2022
From reading aloud to reading silently to writing silently, our writing evolved into an independent medium and an art form. As the history of the medium shows, this could not have happened without our co-evolving punctuation system.
Greek Plays and Reading Aloud
Earlier Greek and Latin writings were written in uninterrupted streams of capital letters (lowercase letters had not been invented yet), with no spaces separating words. The only way such text could be deciphered was by reading it aloud, even to oneself, to hear its syntactic structure.
Initially viewed as highly inferior to speech and used only for messaging and recording of business transactions (which, before the West shifted from Roman with Arabic numerals, was rather limited), writing became an important tool for recording texts intended to be delivered orally: e.g., Greek plays or Roman oratory speeches.
Punctuation is a phenomenon of written language, and its history is bound with that of the written medium. Although writing has long stopped being a mere reflection of the spoken word, it historically developed to preserve (and transport) speech.
Greek playwrights would occasionally place vertically arranged dots between phrases, clauses, and sentences to indicate pauses and to help actors read their parts. Thus, the earliest rhetoric (prosodic) punctuation systems, guided by the use of pauses and intonation in speech, were developed to reflect human speech and to guide the reader towards reading a written text aloud.
The Bible and the Invention of the Most Important Punctuation Mark
With the spread of Christianity across Europe, facilitated through the distribution of handwritten Latin-based Bibles, punctuation became indispensable in ensuring proper readability aloud—for the God's book could not be allowed to be misread!
When St. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin (c. A.D. 400), he insisted that the new translation be further copied in a format used by Roman oratory teachers. They practiced dividing the reading text into sections of phrases (sense-units), each sense-unit starting from a new indented line.
Although Latin was the foundation of most Western European languages, they had already begun diverting from their parent language. As helpful as the new educational format was, it remained insufficient. Most Europeans did not know Latin or were simply illiterate, needing as much guidance in reading as their non-Latin counterparts.
So, when a translated and beautifully recreated Bible reached the British Isles, the Celtic monks genuinely struggled to comprehend the sacred language of Rome. The Bible was still written only in capitals, with the sense-units separated by the differing number of marks, realigned horizontally and signifying pauses of corresponding length. Before the monk scribes could comprehend the sense-units of the Bible, they needed to know where one word ended and the other one started.
The Bible was the first best punctuated book!
This is when a great anonymous Irish monk invented the most important punctuation mark that has ever been created—the white space. The Irish and Anglo-Saxon monks also created quotation marks, formatted as angle brackets on page margins, which they used to indicate Bible quotations in other books. In effect, by rearranging the text to convey the meaning as they understood it, these amazing monks did not only enhance St. Jerome's Bible but also provided their interpretation of one of the most cryptic books ever written.
In addition to creating a first Bible Reader and a textbook for reading comprehension, the Irish superhero punctuators essentially developed a visual “grammar of legibility.” This signified a major paradigm shift towards an autonomous writing, which "spoke" to us silently and which we were able to grasp visually as well as audibly.
Interestingly enough, when Irish scribes copied the Bible in their own native language, they did not separate the words but rather grouped them in prosodic phrases. This meant that the understanding of writing was gradually evolving from a representation of speech as a vocalizing aid (the prosodic Irish copy, meant to assist other countrymen with reading aloud) to a representation as a durable writing that meant to be read while remaining written (the Latin copy, significantly restructured by and for foreign speakers through grammatical and syntactical punctuation instead and, as such, meant to be read silently).
Printing and Silent Reading
The written word remained secondary to the spoken word well into the Late Middle Ages. In trade and legal areas, written deeds of land or wills did not become legally binding in England until the 17th century. The flimsiness of written documents and, most importantly, their susceptibility to forgery, did not inspire confidence in pragmatically minded property owners.
Throughout human history, the spoken word was much preferred to the written word.
In fact, most transactions were oral agreements concluded in the necessary presence of several witnesses. In the world where one's reputation meant everything, a word from any of these witnesses was trusted much more than any written document.
With the invention of printing in the 15th century, the entire continent began to effectively transform into a writing and reading culture. led to a mass production of books. With the growing accessibility and popularity of reading, along with the societal encouragement of public literacy, reading aloud slowly gave way to silent reading. The speed of reading printed books silently as opposed to reading handwritten manuscripts aloud increased exponentially.
As reading in Europe and beyond became more accessible and popular, significantly improving the literacy rates, the increased speed of reading underscored the usefulness of punctuation. The need for standard writing conventions and grammar systems, in general, became an urgent matter.
By the 16th century, punctuation was largely reworked and further augmented as part of a uniform writing and grammar system for a growing population of readers. The new in-the-line punctuation now included ending sentences with a colon or a full stop (period), the occasional use of parentheses, a prettier comma, and the newly invented semicolon, both denoting corresponding pauses.
Despite or maybe because of the growing formalism in writing, grammatical and typographical punctuation served as a rule-based method of organizing and structuring the written text, intended to be read silently.
Authors, Styles, and Meanings
As writing grew increasingly autonomous from, and equivalent to, speech, it came to be understood as communicating directly with our minds through our eyes. The growing importance of self-contained writing and, with that, of the original author turn a literary endeavor into a highly regarded, even celebrated area of writing (and reading) literature.
The writer's increasing autonomy gave rise to so-called author’s punctuation. Although granted the freedom to experiment with punctuation rules, authors, in fact, have highlighted the importance of conventional punctuation. The experimentation only works if conventions are known and shared. And so, every course in creative writing has involved analyzing the greatest writers' stylistic choices, which, in turn, have promoted learning and repeating the established rules. It has long become a common practice for instruction in orthography to be based on examples from the greatest literary works.
Although first recognized as early as in 1566 by the Venetian scriber Aldus Manutius the Younger, the most vital function of punctuation, its syntactic & semantic role in clarifying the textual syntax, has taken centuries to gain traction. Author’s punctuation, although considered stylistic rather than syntactic, can only be semantic in nature thanks to its ability to generate meaning through stylistic means.
Nowadays, punctuation tends to be based on specific punctuation-related rules, have occasional prosodic elements and a strong sense of syntax, while guiding the reader towards the intended meaning of the written text.
To punctuate or not to punctuate...
Most languages have viewed punctuation as performing at least some or all these functions, many of which overlap:
Rhetoric (prosodic, intonational)
Syntactic (structural, language-specific)
Semantic (logical, meaning defining)
Stylistic (expressive, author’s punctuation, dialectical)
Pragmatic (communicative, transcriptive)
Typographical (used in publishing)
Symbolical (specialized, e.g., math symbols, etc.)
While most languages employ the last four punctuation functions—which are noncontroversial by definition—the controversy in the history of punctuation has evolved around the rhetoric (prosodic) vs. grammatical vs. syntactic & semantic uses.
English, for example, has decidedly dispensed with the use of grammatical punctuation, while continuing questioning the use of rhetoric punctuation. On the other hand, Russian has a very strong tradition of using grammatical punctuation. Turkish uses all kinds of punctuation; however, the existing punctuation rules are not consistent or sufficient.
...should not be a question anymore.
Some English linguists argue in favor of light (minimalist) punctuation—the punctuation used exclusively to clarify the meaning or prevent any misreading of the written text. The minimalists often deride these little graphemes. Semicolon, for instance, has taken a real beating, for some reason.
The minimalists would probably point to an easy irony about punctuation—that the white space, i.e., the lack of punctuation, as one may say, should be the best invention in its history.
I certainly do not subscribe to minimalism. Nor do I subscribe to any opposite extreme. Punctuation can easily be moderate. More precisely, it should be moderate, or just the right amount. Punctuation is a miracle of an invention. With only a dozen of graphemes—and the lack of punctuation is also punctuation—it acts as if a transparent layer with a deciphering code drawn as lines and dots is placed upon a stream of words and magically transforms it into a meaningful message.
The absence of punctuation, or a white space, is also punctuation!The same goes for breaking the text into paragraphs and using indentation.
Just like the Irish monks came to discover its potency, punctuation is especially helpful to language learners. This is where the other magical side of punctuation should come out—as a metadata element, as the author's coding embedded in the narrative, an additional channel of communication with the reader, and the way to show the reader the care and forethought put into the writing.
The best writing should never forget its roots in speech and remain utterable; it should also be able to transcend them by creating a profound, resonate melody.
As digital communication grows ubiquitous, our writing conventions may be undergoing yet another reshaping so that, once again, to bring us closer to the way we speak. After all, any written text must have gone through an approval process that involved being read aloud by the writer.
Writing has been historically connected with the way we speak. It remains so to this day.
Read more about how writing, and therefore punctuation, reflects the way we speak.