Not by letters alone

The Baltimore Sun

Print is another country, and from the time we first discover the correspondences between the world of the senses and the shapes of letters, we explore a parallel landscape. 

Speech we begin to learn before we can even walk, but reading and writing take years of application. It used to be even harder, as Keith Houston describes in Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks (W.W. Norton, 340 pages, $25.95): 

"The orthographic world of ancient Greece was a sparse old place. When reading a contemporary manuscript, a literate Greek of Homer's time would be faced with an UNBROKENSTREAMOFLETTERS, all uppercase (because at that time there was no other case), with lines running alternately left-to-right and then right-to-left across the page in boustrophedon, or "ox-turning" style, after a farmer driving his oxen across a field. Perhaps most cruelly, the visual signposts of punctuation that today we take for granted were completely absent. It was the reader's unenviable lot to tease out words, clauses, and even sentences from this densely packed zigzag of characters."

(Romans were no better.)

You should be grateful to Aristophanes of Byzantium, who ran the great library at Alexandria and introduced the first punctuation into Greek, a series of dots, in the third century B.C.

Since then, punctuation has flourished, and Mr. Houston has provided a kind of guidebook to its appearance in the landscape of print. He discourses on the pilcrow (the paragraph symbol), the octothorpe (the hashtag or pound sign), the maniscule (the pointing finger), the asterisk, the ampersand, and others. 

Many of these symbols were first developed in manuscript, to supply punctuation to the text or annotate in the margins. Mr. Houston notes with regret that the technology of the nineteenth and twentieth century, the Linotype and the typewriter, standardized and curtailed this wealth of symbols because of their limited character sets. 

There are also failed symbols to be noted. In 1668, an Englishman, John Wilkins, proposed an inverted exclamation point to indicate irony. Had it caught on, it might have been handy, because irony and sarcasm are fatally attractive to writers, though many readers never get the point. (You might think of the Church of England clergyman who allowed that he thought that parts of Gulliver's Travels were exaggerated.) 

The late Keith Waterhouse wrote that H.L. Mencken proposed the creation of a separate typeface to indicate irony, though Mr. Houston has been unable to find evidence of such a proposal apart from Mr. Waterhouse's writing. 

Our time has produced the mixed blessing of the emoticon, which at last enables the writer to indicate irony, sarcasm, or a simple apologetic "I don't really mean this." Though they infest email and social media today, the smiley face the original emoticon, dates from 1982, and it has many successors. As Mr. Houston observes, "Emoticons recur throughout modern history like defenestrations in Prague."

If you, like me, spend a goodly portion of your life in the landscape of print, you will appreciate an inform and dryly amusing guide like Keith Houston. 


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