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Mount Orégano
Sue Burke
How to read 
24th-Feb-2010 11:16 am
Let me see..

Speaking is instinctive, but writing is a technology: a code. Readers must decode the symbols that make up a text in order to understand its meaning. Over time, that code has evolved to become more complex; writing changed because reading changed, and readers needed more information.

I believe in those changes, although not everyone does. The history of writing goes back about six thousand years, but I'll start 2,000 years ago with Latin to explain my faith in innovations like punctuation.

How do you read this? Well, try reading it out loud.

This is how the Romans wrote at the time: in scriptio continua or "continuous script" and in all upper-case letters because that was all they had. It worked well enough since most readers in those days received patrician educations, which gave them strong language skills. Moreover, texts were few, and educated people knew most of them already. Writing often served merely as a reminder to aid in its declamation.

You can see an example in the photo. This 1st century BC marble inscription known as the "Laudatio Turiae" used to stand alongside the Via Portuense in Rome.

Then Rome became Christian, and Christianity spread using a written Bible and other texts. Monks in monasteries created copies, often beautifully illustrated but in variable handwriting, still in scriptio continoa, and sometimes without much skill in the Latin language. In 781 AD, Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne was worried about the decay of Christian learning, so he persuaded the English monk Alcuin to help him reform education and create a standardized script.

One result was Carolingian minuscule, essentially the lower-case letters we use today; capital letters were reserved to distinguish the initial letters of sections. Alcuin also established custom of separating words with spaces to help readers with poor Latin skills distinguish them. Finally, he added punctuation to show where to pause when reading a text aloud.

Many marks were used throughout the Middle Ages, including periods, single dots, colons, semicolons, three dots, slashes (/, used as commas), double-slashes, pilcrows (¶) - all employed without much standardization. Indentations, colored ink, initial letters, and other kinds of visual clues also aided the inexpert reader.

Until the Renaissance, though, writing still tended to serve as a means to help a reader declaim the text. Books were rare and expensive, and few people could read. Instead, people were read to by scholars and clergy.

Then in about 1450 AD Gutenberg invented movable type. Within a century Europe was filling up with moderately priced printed books. This revolutionized access to writing at the same time that literacy was becoming more common, so people began to read for pleasure, alone and silently. They often found themselves reading new, unfamiliar texts, and silent reading meant that they did not take the intermediate step of turning the marks on the page into voiced words whose inflection and pacing revealed meaning. Readers needed help.

So punctuation became standardized. It began to add specific grammatical information to the texts, and more kinds of punctuation were invented, such as quotation marks, apostrophes, question marks, exclamation marks, and parentheses. Texts were separated into paragraphs. Eventually, even English spelling became standardized (though not simplified, alas).

These evolutions have make reading easier, but they mean that writers must work harder. Punctuation no longer marks pauses, it marks grammatical meaning: a panda who "eats shoots and leaves" is not the same as one who "eats, shoots, and leaves." Writers must learn complex grammar rules to know when to use commas (and be able to debate the serial comma), and to use capital letters, italics, single quotes, double quotes, inverted quotes, hyphens, m-dashes, and all those other details that I have at times earned my living correcting as an editor and proofreader.

Some writers rebel against having to burden their creative process with the management all this labyrinthine code and "blot the page up with weird little marks," as Cormac McCarthy says. I think this merely shifts the burden to the reader, who has always had enough problems.

Nathaniel Hawthorne said, "Easy reading is damned hard writing." I believe that good writers aren't lazy writers. All these writing tools developed over the centuries exist to help the reader. It's an honor to have readers, and they deserve the best-encoded text I can produce.

- Sue Burke

[This is cross-posted from my professional website, http://www.sue.burke.name]

24th-Feb-2010 11:12 am (UTC)
It's really interesting how language evolves; I think it's something which will continue to do so in the forseeable future. The point you made at the end that it becomes harder to write something which is easy to read hit something I've been thinking about.

I am currently reading Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, and I expected it to be a difficult read, not only because of the word count but because of some internal preconception that Tolstoy = hard. However I am finding it as easy to read and far more enjoyable then a modern day best-seller, yet the language and punctuation is far from simplistic! I think a sign of good writing is when it comes across as deceptively easy to read.

Very interesting post! I had no idea how punctuation and structure came into being used as the standard, so thanks for sharing!
24th-Feb-2010 02:51 pm (UTC)
I really enjoyed Anna Karenina. I read it when I traveled in Europe in 1985. It made my one day visit to Italy rather surreal, because I had reached then end of the book and was really sucked into the story. (I remember looking up from reading to find that I was on the steps of some lovely old building surrounded by five handsome Italian young men who were spouting lines like "you, me, love story!" ;-)

But, you are right. It was very readable...and very interesting.

I love the story that in Tolstoy's original draft Anna was an unpleasant person, and, with each rewrite, she became more charming and endearing.
24th-Feb-2010 08:34 pm (UTC)
Thanks. I've been looking at old manuscripts and books lately and noticed the difference, so I decided to look into it.
24th-Feb-2010 02:48 pm (UTC)
Really fascinating! Thanks.
24th-Feb-2010 08:36 pm (UTC)
Thank you.
24th-Feb-2010 08:51 pm (UTC)
This is even more interesting than it would usually be to me (which is still a lot) because I've been trying to learn Koine Greek. :) (Which, like the Romans did, is often written with no spaces between words.)
24th-Feb-2010 09:58 pm (UTC)
Good luck. Spanish is a punctuation-rich language. I'm beginning to appreciate that¡!
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