Ask any designer what their favorite thing about typography is, and I’d be willing to bet few would answer the way I do. I know, I blog a lot about type. But bear with me—let me tell you why punctuation is such a great feature of modern typography.
The Ancient Greeks are well-renowned for their beautiful sculptures, their rich culture and mythology, and their love of battle. Lesser known is the terrible state of their pre-type “typography”. You see, Greek letters originally had no distinction between uppercase and lowercase, and on top of that there were no spaces or punctuation marks demarcating the words.
One Greek scholar, Aristophanes, grew fed up with how impossible reading could be because of this. He created a system of dots in the middle, the top, or the bottom of the letter height between characters, to indicate spoken pauses. However, it never caught on. And, when the Romans took so much of Greek culture for their own, this system of dots between words marking out spoken pauses was left by the wayside entirely.
For a while, Roman letters had interpuncts (small middle dots) placed between each word, but this was eventually discarded. Roman letters became one giant string of unbroken capital letters. Allow me to demonstrate:
It was very hard to make out the words, and it’s especially hard to read now, for someone more used to typography that’s so much easier to read.
And modern folks aren’t the only ones who think that looks like unreadable nonsense. When the Roman empire began to fall apart, Christianity began to take over the area, and Christian monks sought to write their psalms and hymns more clearly than Latin’s current script allowed. They embraced and bettered the use of punctuation, including creating paragraph marks and also making use of Aristophanes’ early system.
Then, as Latin moved farther North and its speakers encountered the Gaelic tribes, these predecessors to the Irish and the Scottish didn’t think very highly of Latin’s approach to writing. Unused to picking apart huge strings of unbroken verbage, Gaelic scribes added spaces between words to make them easier to read quickly.
Then, finally, a German king ordered his scribes to create lowercase letters, creating the alphabet we know today—with punctuation making up an integral part of the new system of writing. Although it was all in blackletter at the time. Quite a departure from the Romans’ thinly chiseled letters!
And of course, this punctuation was also developed further as time went on and more people used it, with modern commas, periods, hyphens, apostrophes, dashes, ellipses, slashes, question marks, and semicolons all gradually taking the place of Aristophanes’ simple dots.
And with the invention of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, punctuation finally became a solidified, unchanging system for communication. With punctuation standards set in stone (or lead), they no longer changed… Unless, of course, you consider emoji to be the newest members of the punctuation family.
But that’s what’s so great about punctuation, I think. The changes it’s been through over so many hundreds of years, growing along with the very advances of society, are fascinating. The way we communicate as human beings echoes our very society. And while punctuation’s changes may not be so obvious as the linguistic shift from thou to you as the casual second-person pronoun, they’re still readily apparent.
But just imagine how it might have gone if Aristophanes hadn’t come up with those three dots. Do you think we would ever have come up with this system of punctuation? It could be entirely different than the one we have now—if we had punctuation at all. I hope we would, because I love it so… but what do you think?