Wherein medieval scribes used dots to make texts easier to read…unless they were confusing readers with a game of dots and boxes.
Punctuation marks are a tremendously important part of typeface design. To mention only monospaced fonts, the difference between “curly” quotation marks and “straight” ones (which look like little ticks around sentences) can make a significant difference when reading text, as can how clearly the typeface differentiates between em dashes, en dashes and hyphens. For example, I use Consolas when proofreading OCR-scanned documents because of its clear differentiation between all these marks, and programmers require highly distinct letterforms and punctuation marks to avoid (and find) mistakes in their code.
In the previous article I talked about the development of rudimentary punctuation marks to mark breathing pauses in ancient Greek text. These marks greatly improved readability for orators, but were only of limited help with understanding the textual words themselves. These developments waited at least 800 years until the Middle Ages.
Dot Dot Dot
I previously noted how Aristophanes of Alexandria’s system of circles placed in a line of text correlated approximately to our modern punctuation: a circle high in the line was roughly today’s comma; a circle in the center of the line was today’s semicolon; and a circle at the bottom of the line was today’s period. The Romans, however, thought that this somehow violated Roman virtues; Cicero thought sentences should be punctuated by the speaker’s natural rhythm and not a writer or editor’s stylistic marks.
Aristophanes’ circles therefore disappeared until the system was revived in the 7th century by St. Isidore of Seville, who used dots (from which we inherit the dots in our periods and “curly” punctuation) to mark the grammatical parts of a sentence. Isidore’s dots differed in meaning from Aristophanes’ circles—a low dot now indicated the pause of a comma, whereas a higher dot indicated the finality of a period—but the use of syntactical markings greatly increased the ability of readers to understand a text without the need to hear it read aloud. The reason Isidore reintroduced this punctuation, Florence Hazrat explains, was pedagogical: the decline of Latin led to a decline in understanding how textual words functioned, which was a serious problem for a scripture-based religion like Christianity.
At this time, nonetheless, text was still written with no spaces between words, where blocksoftextranonwithoutreliefuntilbrokenbyadot. Irish and Scottish monks of the same general time period as Isidore, tired of banging their heads against seemingly endless hunks of Latin, therefore began inserting blank spaces between words to simplify reading.
Such grammatical additions to texts were not limited to Christian works. The Masoretes (Jewish scholars of the 6th–10th centuries CE) added accent marks to the Torah to emphasize clauses and sentences, as well as to indicate vowels (written Hebrew to this point only provided consonants). Similarly, scholars of the Qur’ān added alāmāt al-waqf, individual letters above the line of text, to emphasize the sense and beauty of the text (in part by noting how long a reader should pause when reading the text aloud).
While this article makes it seem like the development of punctuation was fairly straightforward, Hazrat says it was anything but:
The development of punctuation is messy and diffuse: individual writers’ habits, different shapes of marks that keep mutating from manuscript to manuscript, or simply pragmatic reasons of space all complicate a simple narrative. Rather than a neat evolutionary line, imagine punctuation developing as a rhizome, a horizontal mesh of practices, explorations and loosely understood conventions whose overlapping branches sometimes do the same thing but look different. Sometimes they disappear and return at later points elsewhere, or burst to the surface from obscurity and come to dominate the organism for various reasons.
It’s a good thing that I can type all my notes and articles (using Nitti and Logic Monospace respectively, thank you), because my handwriting makes every note left on the counter for my family look like it was my last chicken-scratched outburst as I collapsed dying to the floor. “Is that a quotation mark, an exclamation point or some slash made from a hand spasm,” they ask. “Oh well, who cares…just throw it away and he’ll clear it up when he complains later. Or, he won’t because he’s dead. Either way…problem solved.”
Image: Saint Isidore of Seville by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1655) (Source).