A Brief Look at the History of Punctuation


Pages from la Morte de Arthur Photo Credit: http://archive.org/stream/mortedarthurpoem00tennuoft#page/n7/mode/2up
Pages from Morte d’Arthur          Photo Credit: http://archive.org/stream/mortedarthurpoem00tennuoft#page/n7/mode/2up

Since I’ve been studying the art of lettering, I find myself becoming more and more fascinated with the history of letters and writing. This is mostly thanks to my teacher, P.

Although I have a relatively heavy background in ancient literature due to studying for a minor in the Classics, including my stint of studying Latin and translating sections of The Aeneid in college, I never really spent much time thinking about the history of writing and lettering. I’m not sure why that is. But, while P shows me and his other students his mad lettering skills and helps me as I practice my strokes over and over again, he also is able to wax philosophic about the history of the different styles of writing and the path the spread of that knowledge traveled across the world. I love it.

So far, I have entertained a brief study of the traditional Gothic style of lettering and have now moved on to a plainer script so that I can do my next project. I haven’t actually worked on writing punctuation yet with my fancy pen, but I started to wonder about the history of punctuation. I know from my days of studying Latin that people used to string words together so as to use as much of the parchment/papyrus as possible due to the difficult nature of the process of creation of said parchment/papyrus.

A recent article in Slate Magazine offers some great details on the history of the quotation mark. According to the article, the history of the quotation mark is tied to Christianity. No surprise there, really. To get to the genesis of this little mark, you have to go all the way back to the 2nd century B.C. where “its earliest ancestor sprang into being at the ancient Library of Alexandria. The so-called diple, or “double,” was an arrow-shaped character (>) named for the two strokes of the pen required to draw it, and it was just one of a clutch of proofreading marks devised by a librarian named Aristarchus to help edit and clarify the library’s holding.” Aristarchus, according to the article, was influenced by his predecessor Zenodatus who used a mark like this: (–). Aristarchus was apparently a punctuation mark making fiend because he also created a number of other marks to use in his editing. Pretty neat stuff! Never forget how powerful librarians can be.

From what I’ve learned from P, and from the article I’m referencing in this post, style is a big factor. No one’s handwriting looks the same, of course, and people have a whole host of ways of expressing themselves. The diple was utilized on down the line and “some ancient scribes preferred to indent or outdent notable lines, but for many others the diple remained the pre-eminent means of calling out important text.”

Photo Credit: http://thevisualcommunicationguy.com/2014/06/05/the-15-punctuation-marks-in-order-of-difficulty/
Photo Credit: http://thevisualcommunicationguy.com/2014/06/05/the-15-punctuation-marks-in-order-of-difficulty/

History and technology also played a role in creating the quotation marks that we know of today. “At the start of the 16th century, the diple was rebooted. The army of divergent handwritten diples was replaced, en masse and overnight, by simple double commas (,,).”

Near the end of the 16th century, quotation marks finally appeared in a way that resembles the mark we recognize today. “Around the end of the 16th century, quotation marks took two significant steps toward their modern form. First, inverted commas moved from their splendid isolation in the margin into the main body of the text itself, taking up station at the leftmost edge of each line in a quotation. The second breakthrough came in 1574, when a book of cautionary poems called The Mirour for Magistrates first used quotation marks to indicate direct speech.”

It’s pretty cool to be able to look at manuscripts so far back and see the progression of punctuation and the standardization of written communication. I’ve had a lot of fun delving, however briefly, into this subject and pondering something that did not cross my mind before. And I wonder what it means/symbolizes when punctuation leaves the margins and becomes part of the body of the text. I think that’s a great discussion to have with P at our next lesson!

Oh, and in case you were wondering, you don’t have to go back to the 2nd century B.C. for every punctuation mark. The interrobang was invented in the 1960s by ad agency big-shot Martin K. Speckter.

For those of you who are unaware, “the INTERROBANG was created to fill a gap in our punctuation system where writers often used typographically cumbersome and unattractive combinations of the question mark and exclamation mark to punctuate rhetorical statements where neither the question nor an exclamation alone exactly served the writer” (http://www.interrobang-mks.com/). Supposedly the interrobang “can [also] convey in print an attitude, curiosity and wonder” (http://www.interrobang-mks.com/). I can’t say that I’ve ever used an interrobang, but I’d love to find a typewriter that has been outfitted with the mark, if even just for a cool Instagram photo.

Typewriter with Interrobang symbol (found on Google images)
Typewriter with Interrobang symbol (found on Google images)

If you were to invent a piece of punctuation, what would it look like and what purpose would it serve? I might have to think this one over a bit.

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