LANGUAGES WITHOUT PARAGRAPHS?

Christophe Strobbe wrote to me as follows:

I am a member of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines Working Group of the World Wide Web Consortium, and one that came up in a comment on our documents (more specifically this section) is if there are languages in use on the Internet that don’t use paragraphs. I found your web log and noticed that you discuss languages from different language families and with different writing systems, so I wondered if you could shed some light on this or point me to a relevant resource. (Punctuation has not always existed, so there used to be more languages that didn’t use sentences or paragraphs, e.g. Classical Greek, but I’m looking for current examples.)

I told him I didn’t know of any, but I’d ask the assembled multitudes. So: any thoughts?

Comments

  1. michael farris says:

    I think he needs to define ‘paragraph’ first.

  2. Well, Classical Greek is still on the internet… I guess he doesn’t care about that, though.

  3. Michael Idov says:

    Ah, good old WCAGWGWWWC!

  4. I think one could argue that the referenced section does more or less define paragraph:
    The objective of this technique is to use the p element to define a coherent block of text, such as a group of related sentences that develop a single topic or a coherent part of a larger topic.

  5. If you don’t want paragraphs, you don’t use <p>. What other adjustment could possibly be necessary?
    I’m pretty sure there are no languages without paragraphs, at least in current usage.

  6. The Proustian language, a dialect of French.
    But it can be broken down in paragraphs, just like Chinese, Greek, etc.

  7. marie-lucie says:

    Rather than “languages without paragraphs”, it would probably be more accurate to say “written traditions without paragraphs”. There is nothing to prevent breaking down writing into paragraphs, whatever the language, but not all languages have long written traditions, and even the literary traditions we know of do not usually start with prose (e.g. Sumer, Sanskrit, etc). Paragraphs are typical of “serious” prose writing (philosophical, historical etc), while many ancient traditional forms, such as the epic or the hymn, are in a type of poetry where lines are grouped in a different manner, such as rhyming couplets or stanzas, which make them more “memorable”, that is, easier to memorize as well as more striking and esthetically pleasing to the ear. The paragraph, which is set off as a separate block on the page, seems to be linked to a written (and especially printed) prose tradition of discussing ideas, not to originally oral literature.
    marie-lucie

  8. marie-lucie says:

    Rather than “languages without paragraphs”, it would probably be more accurate to say “written traditions without paragraphs”. There is nothing to prevent breaking down writing into paragraphs, whatever the language, but not all languages have long written traditions, and even the literary traditions we know of do not usually start with prose (e.g. Sumer, Sanskrit, etc). Paragraphs are typical of “serious” prose writing (philosophical, historical etc), while many ancient traditional forms, such as the epic or the hymn, are in a type of poetry where lines are grouped in a different manner, such as rhyming couplets or stanzas, which make them more “memorable”, that is, easier to memorize as well as more striking and esthetically pleasing to the ear. The paragraph, which is set off as a separate block on the page, seems to be linked to a written (and especially printed) prose tradition of discussing ideas, not to originally oral literature.
    marie-lucie

  9. Marie-Lucie, that seems to me the best sort of response.
    One might ask a similar question about words, or sentences. Surely all languages have words (with some differences in precisely what will count as, or be explicitly identified as, a “word”); but not every tradition marks the boundaries between words in its written codes. Presumably something parallel could be said about sentences, as (approximately!) complete and self-sufficient utterances.

  10. Some of the avantgarde dialects.

  11. Someone mentioned something about Greek.
    I think that everyone knows this already but hasn’t thought about it:
    The trend for all languages appears to be to use something we’d call paragraphs. But many only started using them in the past century, and one should be able to post documents in those pre-modern formats on the WWW.
    Korea, Chinese, Japanese didn’t always have paragraphs… and the list of others that didn’t would make a very long paragraph.

  12. Are you defining “paragraph” as just a grouping of sentences, or as a discourse structure that includes sentences groupings, each with leading topic sentences?

  13. Balagra-ne isaa-e lonkala muni ba piono-ga a rio-wa…! (Menes bogelonk… rialonk no-ne…)

  14. Just to clarify my question, I ask because Japanese writing typically groups sentences into “danraku” rather than paragraphs. Superficially, they resemble English paragraphs, but they differ in structure and function. The same is probably true for other languages.

  15. Well, Classical Arabic never seemed to have paragraphs. Although, I’d have to say, Modern Standard Arabic uses paragraphs, but a lot of Arabic bloggers and religious writers/bloggers tend to ramble on for several pages in each post with absolutely no use of paragraphs, despite the ramblings being broken up logically.

  16. Computer languages don’t use paragraphs. Any website that discusses computer algorithms should preferably follow the standard representation for computer languages.
    In computer languages, conventionally the structure of the algorithm is indicated by different amounts of indentation.
    I wanted to try to give an example of this, but the comments software removes all of my indentations, making my example totally meaningless.
    The <UL> tag can control indentation in HTML, but it is somewhat cumbersome to use.
    Most text editors designed for source code entry will support correct indentation automatically.

  17. Korea, Chinese, Japanese didn’t always have paragraphs…
    I am not competent about the two others, but Chinese shouldn’t be included here. The manuscripts on bamboo slips and silk have both paragraphs and some form of punctuation/reading marks.

  18. What would be the closest equivalent to “mise en page” in English? After a look at this, it seems that the question can be reformulated as “are there writing systems in use on the Internet whose ‘mise en page’ conventions do not imply the use of alineas”.

  19. maidhc:

    Indendation is possible
    by using a tag
    that is named pre
    and intended just for this purpose
    or,
    more generally,
    for any kind of preformatted text.
    
  20. I suppose it’s creditable that Strobbe is asking actual linguists for opinions, his group having banished the only linguistics graduate from its ranks. Nonetheless, if I were you I wouldn’t be in a rush to help these people, who have a near-unerring record of screwing up. Tell them that X equals X and they’ll add 300 words to their guidelines establishing that it is Y (and must be machine-testable).
    Also, confidential to maidhc: UL is not used for indention. Please enter the late 20th century in your HTML knowledge.

  21. <PRE> is a tag that is supposed to preserve the formatting of the original text. If you cut and paste from a code-oriented text editor, you should see the same thing. It doesn’t provide you with any special indentation control.
    Joe Clark–Sorry that my HTML knowledge dates back to the Eisenhower administration. (Or should I say the Diefenbaker administration?) <UL> is a tag that means “unordered list”. Lists are indented. Therefore <UL> can be used for indentation—if no <LI> tag is used, no list elements will appear.
    Back in the days of Good Queen Bess, there was a tag <BLOCKQUOTE> that was alleged to control indentation. But since the Stuarts came to the throne, I fear it is no more.
    But anyway, my point is that computer languages use a representational convention that is not supported by HTML. Yet there are text editors that support this convention with no apparent problems.
    Yes, there are work-arounds that will produce results that look OK. But apparently, if you use them, you will be regarded as a sort of living fossil, a Coelacanth of the Internet.
    Please provide this wretched trilobite a means by which his poor algorithms can be displayed on dry land.

  22. Blockquote is still good and semantic, as long as you’re using it for actual quotations. I don’t know if it works on the Movable Type, though.

  23. I use it all the time.

  24. Charles Perry says:

    As Samawel notes, Arabic did not adopt the convention of signaling a paragraph break with an indentation until the 20th century. There were other ways to accomplish the same thing, though. Recipes are exactly the sort of self-contained units that need to be separated, so careful writers ended them with a conventional phrase — perhaps a “micro-colophon” — such as “and it comes out excellently, God willing” or “eat it in good health.”

  25. Bridget,
    My question just happens to focus on languages or dialects in use today (i.e. that at least some people would refer to as their ‘native language’), but that doesn’t mean I don’t care about Classical Greek, older version of other languages, and extinct languages.
    Michael Farris,
    I did not have something specific in mind as a structure with a topic sentence, supporting sentences and a concluding sentence. Perhaps I should have written “languages and/or writing systems that group related sentences (if the concept of sentence is known at all) and somehow set them apart from other such groups”. On second thought, that “definition” may be too vague.
    It is clear from other responses that I received that some writing systems were developed by people who were familiar with a European orthography (I just read in Andrew Dalby’s ‘Dictionary of Languages’ that the Cree syllabary invented by James Evans, a missionary, also got a special sign X for ‘Christ’…) and that literacy levels also influence the use of punctuation, paragraphs, etctera.
    Paul D,
    Thanks for contrasting “paragraphs” with Japanese “danraku”. A Google search led me to an article that “examines the differences between Japanese danraku and English paragraphs and the effects of these differences on English and Japanese essays by students” (http://www.jalt.org/pansig/2004/HTML/KimKon.htm), which looks interesting.
    Jimmy Ho,
    My copy of ‘A la recherche du temps perdu’ (Bibliothèque de la Pléiade) definitely contains paragraphs.
    Marie-Lucie,
    Thanks for the reminder about oral traditions. (Maybe it’s time for me to reread Walter Ong’s ‘Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word’.)
    Joe Clark,
    You were not the only WCAG participant with a degree in linguistics.

  26. Seriously, I do not understand why you have to mention “sentences” at all. Muzerelle’s definition seems applicable (and covers the case of Arabic as described by Charles Perry):

    PARAGRAPHE: Portion de texte comprise entre deux alinéas, ou entre deux signes ou mentions marquant une subdivision du texte.

  27. And my concern about the notion of “mise en page” still stands.

  28. Jimmy Ho,
    My “Petit Robert” defines “mise en pages” (plural form at the end!) as “opération par laquelle le metteur en pages d’un journal, d’une revue, dispose les paquets de composition en y intercalant tout ce que doit rentrer dans le texte (blancs, titres, clichés, etc.)”, with a reference to “maquette”, which has the following meaning in printing: “projet graphique comportant la disposition du text composé, des illustrations et des légendes, destiné à permettre le montage des pages.”
    Is there any reason why you wouldn’t accept Muzerelle’s translation of “mise en page” (singular form at the end) as “page design, layout”? If no, I think that it would be appropriate to reformulate my original question as: “Are there writing systems in use on the Internet whose page design or layout conventions do not imply the use of paragraphs”. (Alinea does not seem to be an English word; I’ve seen it only in French and Dutch.)

  29. The French version of MS Word omits the ‘s’ as well. The difference between “mise en pages” and “maquette” predates the era of PAO (Publication Assistée par Ordinateur) and is not as obvious nowadays as the Robert, which refers to traditional printing terminology, seems to imply.
    As embarassing as it is, I did not try to look up “mise en page(s)” in the Muzerelle, because I generally don’t use it for the translations of French terms. As far as I can tell, “page design, layout” seems all right. As for “alinéa”, well I guess you don’t need it.

  30. Siganus Sutor says:

    Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that journalists are writing articles composed of paragraphs that are shorter and shorter. (It’s probably to make things nice-looking for these easily discouraged readers who are supposed to have become as lazy as humans in Planet of the Apes.) Among the “leading” media in this race we could probably put the BBC, its website displaying articles which, for most of them, are full of one-sentence paragraphs. The next generation will probably see texts filled with one-word paragraphs. Until…

  31. michael farris says:

    Sig, I spent a brief unhappy spell as a journalism student (I loved newspaper work, but hated journalism classes). Over twenty years ago we were instructed to write down to the reader, specifically to an ‘8th grade reading level’ (to be honest, for some of the students, this seemed to be writing up).
    Short, one sentence paragraphs were A-OK. Anything difficult or challenging was double-plus-ungood.
    FWIW I have translation classes and mostly use press language to get students in the hang of translating and while their textbooks are all British they find American sources easier to read. When I used something from a British paper (the Telegraph IIRC) they found it horribly difficult though I thought I had picked a pretty easy article. And even the best British papers are very sloppy about attribution (by lawsuit-driven American standards, at any rate).
    I never look at the English BBC though I sometimes glance at their international pages in various languages.

  32. Vilhelm S says:

    I’m not sure how relevant the “paragraph versus danraku” paper is. All it says is that the “topic-sentence, supporting sentences, concluding sentence” structure is not used in japanese.
    But that is a quite particular convention of academic writing; e.g. newspaper articles or novels in english will be structured completely differently. Or in other words, “paragraph” and “danraku” are about as different in meaning as “paragraph in a novel” and “paragraph in a research paper”. But we are quite happy to use the same word for those two.
    I would be more interested in evidence that there is some kind of structure which is used for all paragraphs in english, and is different from some other structure used for all paragraphs in japanese. (Personally I never noticed any striking difference, but my japanese is not very advanced).

  33. I wasn’t very impressed by the danraku vs paragraph article. My suspicion is that they were looking for excuses to play up a preconceived difference between the two languages.
    They comment that this sentence, ‘What is important is the will of the Japanese to master English, not the force on them to master it’ will confuse readers because it is a new idea not related to the controlling sentence of the paragraph. Looking at the overall essay, however, the sentence is admirably clear. It reiterates the point that making English an official language is ill considered as a way of bringing about an improvement in people’s English, putting the cart before the horse, as it were.
    Rather than trace the difference to danraku vs paragraph, it might be a better idea to look at students’ ability to foreground and background information, their ability focus their sentences, and their ability to link them together logically.

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