- Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West by M.B. Parkes
Scolar, 327 pp, £55.00, September 1992, ISBN 0 85967 742 7
The history of punctuation is bound up with the most important shift in the theory of writing to have taken place in our culture. The written word began as a record of speech, a priority of voice over text which held sway in the ancient world and was literally (i.e. graphically) enforced. Reading meant reading aloud; texts were the libretti of performances so there was no need for elaborate pointing. Indeed there is no need even for the most minimal punctuation of all, word division. Classical texts were copied in scriptio continua (joined-up writing with a vengeance) so that the opening of, say, ‘Resolution and Independence’ would have looked like this (only more so, because there would have been quirks of orthography, such as contractions and elisions, to contend with as well):
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 15 No. 3 · 11 February 1993
Reviewing M.B. Parkes on Punctuation in the West (LRB, 7 January), Danny Karlin earns our gratitude by opening the subject in arresting ways. He also leaves me feeling (such is readerly ingratitude) that his apertures need enlarging. He quotes with approval Parkes’s remark: ‘the merit of scriptio continua was that it presented the reader with a neutral text.’ After it has left the author, every text is neutral: in the strict sense of being unknown until known, interpreted by a reader. The rest is a matter of codings that can or cannot be known (Linear A, B; a ‘foreign’ language etc). The manner of knowing may be trivial or important to the author, the reader and those between: oral v. written transmission, scroll v. codex, manuscript v. printing, recited (holy writ, hymns) or played (stage) from memory v. read, etc. Karlin concludes, pace Parkes: ‘the point is that authors and printers’ – presumably also other intermediaries – ‘collaborated to restrict the interpretative scope of the reader’. In a sense that is true, but there is no meaning anything without the implication that all else is not being known. And it is a prior ‘point’ that those ‘authors and printers’ enable the suitably equipped reader to know something in the first place. Would his worship banish and choke all the authors and printers of the town?
The subject of ‘punctuation in the West’ is far more complex, which is not to say always earth-shaking. How much difference is made by the fact that the blind Milton ensured that his three greatest poems were the first in English numbered by lines and printed on ruled pages? What do people mean practically by crediting Seneca with invention of the paragraph? Is there really a conspiracy involved in the writing (or printing) of Hebrew and Arabic unpointed for vowels? Or the addition of such pointing for valued texts such as the Bible and the Quran?
The whole subject – ‘in the West’ – is parochial. Chinese and Japanese were written for centuries without punctuation, without word breaks, and of course with no capitals. (Korea is its own special case.) For long, Chinese and Japanese verse was printed ‘like prose’; that is, without breaking for lines as in all Karlin’s quotations of that stanza from ‘Resolution and Independence’. The earliest mss of the Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji) are the harder to read for being totally unpunctuated and without paragraphs in any familiar sense: the only indentations signal the beginning of a poem. The harder also for being written in that kana syllabary (and not modern kana although reproducible in that) which women used: i.e. with few Chinese characters. There were also none of today’s familiar diacritics indicating voicing of consonants (zu from su, pa from ha etc). Yet young women (and old men) once read the graphs with ease, and probably aloud, whether to themselves or others. Only a very small number today can do so. In fact those lengthy, complex sentences (if they are sentences in our sense) omitting topics and subjects of verbs, require glossing as to who is speaking or thinking (an alternative not always clear) to or about whom. We rely on editors for signals: addition of abbreviated names with particles along with punctuation. Each of us reading a modern text knows that the editors have intervened with their interpretations, ruling out others when they rule in their own, although not thereby wholly controlling what individual readers will think, something impossible. Some editions of the Genji (but not solely it) even print ‘modern language translations’ (gendaigo yaku) as aid to the serious and no doubt as cribs for the lazy. How regrettable the interference – in a puristic sense such as applies to no practical end! The assisted (and thereby limited) understanding provided by a scholarly specialist of tenth and 11th-century Japanese is unquestionably a limiting (and a crucial) assistance.
The subject is often truly important and, even when not truly important, interesting. But there is no need to demonise ‘authors and printers’ – or to restrict the matter to that ‘in the West’. Surely a more reasonable place to begin is with scepticism about our own powers unaided by those breaks, marks, larger letters, initials, numbers, and much else that we take for granted solely because we think they can always be assumed?