punctuation in classical greek and latin -- 1/19/16

Today's selection -- from Making A Point by David Crystal. Some people today obsess over proper punctuation. However, it is worth noting that in ancient Greek, Latin and Old English, including many of the most important and foundational books in Western civilization, there was not only no punctuation, there were not even spaces between the words:

"Up on the second floor in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, in a gallery displaying artefacts from early England, there is a beautiful teardrop-shaped object. A decorated golden frame surrounds a colourful enamelled design protected by a flat panel of polished rock crystal. It shows the picture of a man dressed in a green tunic, and holding a flowered sceptre in each hand, his wide eyes gazing intently at something we do not see. And around the rim of the object, just a few milli­metres thick, is an Old English inscription in Roman letters:


There are no spaces between the words. Inserting these, we get


Alfred me ordered to make
= Alfred ordered me to be made

"This is King Alfred the Great, and the object has come to be called the Alfred Jewel. ...

The Alfred Jewel

"For people interested in English punctuation, the jewel inscription provides an important opening insight. There isn't any. This is a sentence, but there's no full stop. All the letters are the same, capitals, so there's no contrast showing where the sentence begins or that Alfred is a name. And the inscription lacks what to modem eyes is the most basic ortho­graphic device to aid reading: spaces to separate the words. ...

"This state of affairs is common in the inscriptions of the period. Many have no spacing or punctuation marks at all. Today, word-spaces are such an obvious and universal feature of the written language that we can easily forget they are there, and ignore their role as a device of punctuation. But a word-space is just as much a punctuation feature as is its close relative, the hyphen. ...

"Word-spaces are the norm today; but it wasn't always so. It's not difficult to see why. We don't actually need them to understand language. We don't use them when we speak, and fluent readers don't put pauses between words as they read aloud. Read this paragraph out loud, and you'll probably pause at the commas and full stops, but you won't pause between the words. They run together. So, if we think of writing purely as a way of putting speech down on paper, there's no reason to think of separating the words by spaces. And that seems to be how early writers thought, for unspaced text (often called, in Latin, scriptura continua) came to be a major feature of early Western writing, in both Greek and Latin. From the first century AD we find most texts through­out the Roman Empire without words being separated at all. It was thus only natural for missionaries to introduce unspaced writing when they arrived in England. ...

"Some influential writers, indeed, poured scorn on punctuation. Cicero, for example, thought that the rhythm of a well-written sentence was enough to tell someone how to bring it to an effective close. Punctuation marks were unnecessary."


David Crystal


Making a Point: The Persnickety Story of English Punctuation


St. Martin's Press


Copyright 2015 by David Crystal


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