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Today we expect written or printed prose to give us some kind of indication of how it is spoken.
Read the following examples:
The fireman exclaimed; "Get out of here, this place is on fire!"
In the first example we need to hunt for each individual word in the string of characters and assemble on our own. Only when we comprehend the meaning of the entire phrase can we guess at the author's intention in conveying emotion and dramatic pause.
Unbelievably, our literate Greco-Roman ancestors would find modern text unfamiliar. Their manuscripts, tablets, and monumental inscriptions were rendered as a series of characters representing words with no space or punctuation. These ancient readers most likely read aloud to themselves sounding out letters and inserting pause and intonation after they grasped the meaning of phrases.
Just as our Western alphabet has evolved to meet the needs of readers and writers, so has the way we intersperse space and analphabetic symbols (those that do not represent a sound) in our written and printed text. Additionally, a sort of shorthand was slowly added to our character set. Special symbols, sometimes what we might consider a ligature, were developed to convey a specific meaning.
Early spacing and insertion of dots and dashes was not what we would consider punctuation, but rather stage directions for a reader. In a world where literacy was a privilege of royalty and the wealthy, many texts were written for oral delivery to those who could not read.
As the Western world became united by the Roman Empire, and subsequently under the proselytizing influence of the Roman Catholic Church, accuracy in stage direction became more important.
Spacing and Early Punctuation
Around 200 BCE the Greek scholar and librarian, Aristophanes, introduced a system using dots placed at varying heights in strategic places to represent a short pause, a long pause, and a full stop. Aristophanes' system was not widely adopted. By the first century BCE, it had fallen out of fashion. Around this time the Romans began to use a small dot, or midpoint, called an interpunct to mark a division between words. Soon after, however, a renewed interest in Greek language and scholarship swept through the Roman Empire, and the lowly interpunct disappeared as well.
Interestingly, the privileged children of the Roman Empire were taught to read and write Latin with grammar manuscripts employing word spaces so these young students could learn the language. Consequently, spaces between words were considered childish and illiterate. Some language scholars will also argue that the Latin language has such uniform grammatical constructions that spacing and punctuation was not as critical as it is to the languages it spawned.
With the Roman Empire in decline during second and third centuries CE, the Roman Catholic Church is credited with keeping literacy alive in a chaotic Europe. Through its network of bishops based throughout the former empire, bibles, religious commentary, and other manuscripts were traded between monasteries for duplication for the purpose of converting the barbarians of Europe. In the 6th century CE, the aforementioned children's grammar manuscripts made their way to monastic scribes in Britannia and Ireland who were just learning the Latin language. It is these monastic scribes who first began to use word spacing in any consistent way.
Around this time, our modern-day romance languages were developing. The local vernacular was merging with Latin, the lingua franca of the day. Latin grammatical constructions were not as easily adapted. Consequently, a need for transcription with clear stage direction was arising.
The Carolingian Empire, begun by Frankish kings originating in modern-day Germany and Northern France, became a dominant power in Europe from about 750 to 900 CE. They subsequently converted to Christianity and held some power over the Roman Catholic Church. One of these later kings, Charlemagne (hence Carolingian), established a centralized scriptorium for his empire. It was from here that space between words, along with capitalization of the first word of a phrase, use of paragraphs to indicate a new train of thought, and the beginnings of uppercase and lowercase letterforms were standardized and popularized throughout Europe.
Beginnings of Punctuation: Period, Comma, Slash, and Colon
Although the word-separation issue had been resolved to some degree, the representation of natural pauses, emphasis, and halt of the spoken word in written form was left to the discretion and style of the scriptorium producing the manuscript. Aristophanes' system was rediscovered and was introduced into medieval manuscripts. Aristophanes' dot, called a komma, was placed at the top of line, mid-level, or at the bottom to represent what we now think of as a colon, comma, and period. However the komma was not universally used. Some scribes employed the slash to indicate pause: one slash mark indicating a comma, two indicating a dash.
Eventually the komma on the baseline became our modern-day period. The slash however took two different routes; the single and double slash were used interchangeably. Eventually the double slash became horizontal (like an equal sign) and finally evolved into a single slash on the horizontal — the dash, as we know it today. In the 16th and 17th centuries our modern-day colon and semicolon were developed to further convey an author's intention in written text.
Medieval scribes, whether for speed, economy, or artistic license, also began to employ a small dash for a continuation of a word (hyphen) and invented abbreviations for frequently used words. The ampersand is one of their creations. It is the amalgamation of the lowercase letters E and T, the Latin word for and. The E and T letterforms can easily be discerned in the ampersand of some fonts, while it is stylized in other faces looking like a kind of uppercase backward S (the simple cross form is theft of the addition sign from mathematical notation). These innovations in transcribing analphabetic characters and use of space were by no means universal. Writing, like any communication system, needs wide adoption.