Wherein the Greeks master the art of avoiding—or causing—the awkward pause.
With the possible exceptions of grammar geeks arguing over the Oxford comma, or people criticizing using two spaces to begin a sentence (as someone who learned to type using an IBM Selectric II, it took me a while to adapt to using one space on a computer (especially since I still use monospace fonts to write and edit)), few people find punctuation to be a particularly compelling topic for conversation. I wouldn’t recommend trying to impress a first date with “don’t you think the guy who writes The Historic Life used too many parentheses in the previous sentence?”
Punctuation is nonetheless vital for correctly conveying and interpreting meaning in a written text. A popular modern example, “a woman without her man is nothing,” demonstrates this:
- “A woman, without her man, is nothing,” or
- “A woman: Without her, man is nothing.”
While ancient Greek writers would have largely gone with the first option, we nonetheless have the 3rd–2nd century librarian Aristophanes of Alexandria (or Byzantium…see the parentheses?) to thank for even making the two options a possibility.
Break Up to Make Up
Ancient Greek did not incorporate upper- and lowercase letters or word spacing in their writing, meaning TEXTSWOULDRUNONLIKETHISFROMTHEBEGINNINGTOTHEENDOFTHEDOCUMENT. For a long time this was not seen as a serious problem because far more emphasis was placed on the oratorical style of the person presenting the contents of the text to an audience than to the text itself.
Some people nonetheless had difficulty with an almost impenetrable wall of run-on text. For one thing, such text required a great deal of time to read and interpret, meaning it was impossible to simply “sight read” a document and have any real understanding of its contents. As Keith Houston relates,
To be able to understand a text on a first reading was unheard of: when asked to read aloud from an unfamiliar document, a 2nd Century writer named Aulus Gellius protested that he would mangle its meaning and emphasise its words incorrectly. (When a bystander stepped in to read the document instead, he did just that.)
Unbroken lines of text were also difficult to understand for readers for whom Greek was a second or third language, and whose education would have emphasized spoken rather than written words.
Aristophanes addressed these issues by creating a notation system alerting readers and speakers to the vocal (and thought) pauses that should be included between clauses and sentences in a text. Each type of pause was marked with a circle in a different height on the line: subordinate pauses (roughly where we would use the modern comma) were marked with a high circle (˙); intermediate pauses (today’s semicolon) were marked with a middle circle (·); and full pauses were marked with a lower circle similar to the modern period.
While I note how the dots are analogous to modern punctuation, at the same time they weren’t proper punctuation: they were simply dots to mark how long a speaker should pause when reading the text aloud. As we’ll see in another article, it took almost 800 years for modern punctuation to appear on a page.
Follow the Bouncing Ball
Aristophanes’ invention was an act of genius, and undoubtedly tremendously helpful to orators (even if it was later abandoned by the Romans), but I can easily imagine it becoming less than helpful when drops of ink, stains, or even squished bugs created pause-inducing dots. Pity the poor Greeks who, gathered to listen to Homer’s Iliad, heard,
Come to think of it, that’s pretty close to how it sounded when we read it in high school.
Image: Graeco-Egyptian Magical Papyrus II; Louvre (Source)