The Magazine

Period Piece

The theory and meaning of our own hieroglyphics.

Jan 13, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 17 • By BRIAN P. KELLY
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If, as Kurt Vonnegut believed, the only reason to use a semicolon is to show that you’ve been to college, what does it say when someone uses a pilcrow? Or, for that matter, an interrobang, a manicule, or an octothorpe? While this book doesn’t make any judgments about the punctuation one chooses to use or avoid, Shady Characters takes an entertaining look at the evolution of both common and lesser-known characters.

Interrobang T-shirt

Interrobang T-shirt

Unsurprisingly, the roots of modern punctuation have their origins in ancient Greece. Ancient Greek texts were meant to be spoken aloud, and were written in scriptio continua: all capitals, no typographic marks, and no spaces. Where punctuation now acts, in one regard, as signposts to aid readers in their task, in ancient Greece, readers were on their own when it came to discerning where sentences, clauses, even some words began and ended. It’s easy to see how ITCOULDBEHARDTOUNDERSTAND scriptio continua, and so, in the third century b.c., Aristophanes of Byzantium, head of the Library of Alexandria, devised the first system of punctuation in order to make reading easier. He created a series of three dots, or distinctiones, to indicate places within a text at which a reader should pause and how long that pause should last. These marks were the komma (·), the kolon (.), and the periodos (·), indicating a short pause, medium pause, and long pause, respectively.  

Oddly enough for a culture in which texts were meant to be read out loud—and that didn’t seem preoccupied with formatting for clarity—the paragraph predates Aristophanes’ distinctiones by a full century. The first paragraphs were marked with a small line in the margin of the text where new sections or key ideas began. These marginalia also gave paragraphs their name—para- “beside,” and graphein “write.” While the Romans threw out Aristophanes’ system and returned to scriptio continua by the end of the second century, the paragraph endured as an important part of the written word, albeit in myriad incarnations. Some writers outdented the first words of a paragraph; others enlarged its initial letters, creating literae notabiliores (notable letters); still others inserted the letter “K” at the beginning of paragraphs, short for kaput, or “head.”

As time passed, various punctuations came into and out of existence, thanks largely to the standardization that early Christians demanded in reproducing and circulating Scripture. Aristophanes’ dots were revived and modified; the positura (a mark resembling the Arabic numeral 7) indicated the end of a section of text; questions terminated in a punctus interroatvus (?); the diple (‹) marked quotations from scripture and eventually evolved into quotation marks (“ ”) and guillemets (« »). The paragraph became standardized and the “K” of kaput was replaced by the “C” of capitulum, or “little head”—a style that would last until a technological revolution shook the typographic world.

Before the printing press, extant texts were almost universally religious in nature and painstakingly copied by monks from earlier versions. Due to the tedious nature of producing texts before Gutenberg, each stage of production was assigned to a different individual, beginning with a parchmenter who prepared animal hides, followed by a scribe who copied the text, and ending with a rubricator who would ornament it. Scribes often left ample room at the beginning of paragraphs for decoration, and it became common practice for rubricators to embellish the “C”s that populated texts with a vertical line. Hence, the pilcrow was born: ¶.

Later, even after the advent of the printing press, the beginnings of sections were still adorned by hand. Printers, like the scribes of preceding generations, would simply leave a blank space at the start of paragraphs while setting the type, then pass the manuscripts along for decoration. But the number of texts skyrocketed, and rubricators were unable to keep up with demand. In lieu of ornamental pilcrows marking the beginning of sections, these blank spaces became the norm, and are still with us today in the standard indentation that marks the start of every paragraph.