A fascinating interview (from Jill Kitson’s Lingua Franca radio show, to which I clearly should be paying more attention) with Paul Saenger, author of Space between Words: the Origins of Silent Reading (Palo Alto, Stanford University Press, 1997) (reviews here and here), whose basic point is that the gradual spread of marking word-breaks in writing, from Ireland (where it may have been picked up from Syriac manuscripts) to England and across Europe, made possible the development of silent reading, which we take so much for granted. A couple of extracts to whet your appetite:
Jill Kitson: Well I found you made this really interesting, and I think almost mind-boggling point, that languages that exist only in oral form have no word for ‘word’.
Paul Saenger: Yes, that’s true.
Jill Kitson: So you say it’s really because they’re not conscious of words as graphic units.
Paul Saenger: Right. And the beginning of word separation sharpened that consciousness. For example in Roman antiquity, there was still ambiguity as to what constituted a word for the Roman and Greek grammarians particularly, with enclitic particles, conjunctions, prepositions, it wasn’t clear exactly what was the demarcation between a word and syllable. And even there’s a trace of that today. If one looks in a dictionary, you’ll find along with words certain syllables listed, which are not really words, but which have to be attached to something else….
Jill Kitson: Well in fact you say there was a sort of stage between the space and what you call ‘aerated script’. So what was that and where was it introduced?
Paul Saenger: The whole tendency to aerate script, and on this I talk about in the book—perhaps only very, very slightly, but I’ve done some research on it since—it is probably true that inscriptions of the lowest level in the Roman world that is tomb inscriptions, simple inscriptions written to commemorate the humble dead, tended to be not written in scriptura continua in the pure sense. There was a tendency to try to help the reader by leaving breaks sometimes between syllables, sometimes between words. Not every word, not every syllable. And to write in very short lines; especially this is true among Christians who represented a sort of middle tier between the literate elite of the pagan world and the vast number of people who were totally illiterate of course. And this process created a certain model for facilitating reading by the intrusion of space, which was rapidly expanded in the British Isles, particularly in Ireland. And by the end of the 7th century you had full word separation. And there you had the greatest disjunction between the language, the vernacular language, that is among the Celtic people and Anglo Saxons, and the literate language, or the Latin tongue of the Church.
Now in France for example, that awareness that the language spoken was different from that of the church and of literature, only evolved over a course of centuries, in the 9th and 10th century it became true. But it was much more evident in those areas, which were beyond the borders of the Roman Empire, where there was no tradition of Latin literacy.
This is a book I want very much to read. (Via Transblawg.)
Addendum. Margaret Marks has discovered a Henry Hoenigswald review of a book mentioned in the second of the Saenger review links above, M.B. Parkes, Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West; it too is well worth your attention:
Anyone who has marked up a manuscript or typescript for delivery is aware of a special desideratum. Intonations, instead of having a segmental location in the linear flow of speech, occur over stretches that have a beginning and an end. In this regard, though not in others, they are like word dividers. By convention, it is the end of the stretch that gets the punctuation which is nevertheless understood to extend to the entire sequence that precedes. But (as actors studying their scripts well know) readers/speakers need it in both places, just as they need both the spaces or dots that set off words, as provided in orthographies other than mere scriptio continua; cp., in the latter context, Quintilian Inst.or. 1.1.34 dividenda intentio animi ut aliud uoce alius oculis agatur (10). Get-ready signals are devised here and there, East and West: the Armenian paroyk set over the peak of stress in all kinds of questions makes a contribution toward serving that purpose, and so does, in the context of lexical (not intonational) accentuation, the roundabout way in which the grave accent mark is employed in pre-Byzantine Greek writing. In the Vedic texts of India it is the vowel which precedes the prominent lexical pitch which is shown as specifically unaccented. And in the eighteenth century the Royal Spanish Academy prescribed the addition of inverted question and exclamation points at the start of what seem to be the appropriate intonational stretches.