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Bewildering Stories

Punctuation, Reading and Language

with Oonah V. Joslin and Don Webb

[Oonah] I found the discussion of punctuation in issue 416 interesting.

I didn’t know that the Greeks used to write backwards and on alternate lines. I used to do that when I first started learning to write, writing from left to right left-handed then from right to left, right-handed with letter reversals. My teacher soon disabused me of the notion and chose my right hand over my left which confuses me to this day. Maybe in some past life I was a Greek? No, not really.

How people read is an interesting study and having taught children with learning difficulties for years, I studied that. In fact you don’t need a great deal of standardisation to b abl t rd sthg. Text messages are proof enough of that. Pictures, contextual cues, diagrams and all manner of other things can and should come into play. Information can be predicted and extrapolated, not merely read. Also encoding and decoding are two very different skills so that the learning of one does not lead to the assimilation of the other.

Interestingly, English is a mixed code, and this makes decoding easier at higher levels of functioning. It is difficult because it isn’t phonetic; however, reliance on sound and letter string associations is not helpful where many accents co-exist. Also its ideographic qualities make it easier to sight read words without any reliance on sound, and that speeds up reading.

Letter strings are also the key to learning English spellings as it is easier to learn to write similarly constructed words as a series of strings, e.g. ght words and since rely not ‘sincerely’ as it is pronounced.

Punctuation has been reformed since I first began to learn it 50 years ago. I was taught what would now be considered overuse of the comma for instance. I imagine that all unnecessary punctuation will one day be abandoned. I think that in poetry standard punctuation and capitalisation are seldom needed unless the form is traditional. And after all language either develops or dies.


Copyright © 2011 by Oonah V. Joslin

[Don] Thank you for the discussion, Oonah!

“Mirror writing” may be universal, for all I know. Just try writring your name with your non-dominant hand and see what happens. For our next trick, we shall take a pencil in each hand and write both ways at once.

Y cn mt vwls n nglsh, bt th rslt s vr hrd t rd. (You can omit vowels in English, but the result is very hard to read.) You can decrypt the message by interpolating possibilities until you finally hit on one that seems likely.

In fcat it’s esaeir to usnrcmalbe wrdos (In fact it’s easier to unscramble words) — provided all the letters are there and the first and last letters are correct. But do not sned us ayninthg wirtetn in taht slyte; we wlil not raed it, let anolne pbuslih it (But do not send us anything written in that style; we will not read it, let alone publish it).

Such a thing is impossible in the Semitic languages, which, I understand, are based on triliteral roots. For example, in Arabic, ktb is a root having to do with writing. Add vowels and other things to form the meaning: kitab, ‘book’; katib, ‘writer’; muktub, ‘written’, and so forth.

The ancient scribes I mentioned could save space on scrolls by omitting vowels, and context made the meaning clear. Problems arose in cases of ambiguity and obsolescence; that is, when an abbreviated word might have more than one possible meaning or when the word itself had fallen into disuse.

The results can be odd at times. One of our veteran contributors, Mel Waldman, borrows into English the orthodox Hebrew practice that considers the spoken name of God as taboo. Mel’s workaround is to use the abbreviation “G-d.”

We respect Mel’s usage as a matter of authorial privilege, even though, by an unfortunate coincidence, it looks rather impolite in English. And while in Hebrew you’re supposed to substitute another word, English-language readers may not know what it is. There’s no easy solution.

What is the importance of spelling? Okay, how was the name Yhwh originally pronounced? Scholars can make educated guesses, but the vowels weren’t recorded and now nobody knows for sure. That may be “the cosmic perspective,” but let’s not stop there.

Pictures, contextual cues, diagrams and all manner of other things can and should come into play. Information can be predicted and extrapolated, not merely read.

Which explains why we have comic books, graphic novels and the like. They can be a great help to children. But why is a picture worth a thousand words? Because — according to one of our unofficial mottoes — it takes a thousand words to explain what a picture means.

An occasional work, such as Cleveland W. Gibson’s “From Behind the Green Door,” in issue 416, is a rare exception to the rule that visuals support text rather than the other way around. Children listened to radio stories before they had television; the two esthetic experiences are not the same at all.

In fact you don’t need a great deal of standardisation to b abl t rd sthg. Text messages are proof enough of that.

Text messaging incorporates graphisms such as CUL8R for “See you later” or initialisms such as LOL for “laughing out loud.” And emoticons play a similar role. However, such shortcuts affect only very common expressions, and once they’re generally accepted, the forms quickly become standardized. That’s why the ampersand (&) remains in common use today: in Latin shorthand it was a quick way of writing “et.”

[English spelling] is difficult because it isn’t phonetic; reliance on sound and letter string associations is not helpful where many accents co-exist.

You’re right that reading and writing are two entirely different skills. A Russian correspondent once told me of a gentleman who loved the novels of Charles Dickens. His vocabulary was very extensive, and he could read Dickens fluently. However, he had no clue how the words were pronounced. As far as he knew, “the” would be pronounced t’khe. I imagine I’d have to go a step further with Chinese: I’d disregard pronunciation and substitute my own words for the symbols or sets of symbols. After all, that is what the Chinese do.

But what may be practical in one context can be sheer nonsense in another. In years past, the “look-say” or “whole language” method of teaching reading bypassed the spoken language almost entirely. According to behaviorist theory, if children were taught to recognize a written word, they would pronounce it as they’d learned to say it.

From what I’ve heard, the method has been discredited as ineffective. That’s no surprise; it systematically forfeits a fundamental advantage: English spelling is phonetic. With the whole language method, children might recognize words they already knew, but they would be at a loss to decipher and pronounce words they had never heard before, especially proper names.

I’ll grant you, of course, that English spelling is so riddled with arbitrary conventions and exceptions that English-speaking children take twice as long to learn to read — let alone spell — their own language as children using any other language written with an alphabet.

Even so, dialects or “accents” are not a problem. Years ago, before the age of digital cameras, I once wanted to buy some film to record scenes in a remote corner of North Carolina, next to the Great Dismal Swamp. I asked a gentleman tending a local shop if he had film. He had no idea what I was asking for. I showed him a roll of used film, and he exclaimed, “Oh, feeyums!” And here I thought I spoke the language.

Well, I do, sort of, but not that gentleman’s variety. In his phonetic system, L either drops or reduces to a semi-vowel before a consonant. If I’d written the word for him, he’d have had no trouble, and his pronunciation would have been entirely consistent with the spelling. Likewise, in my dialect, the plural of words ending in -st does not add -s, it drops the -t. Thus “lists” becomes “lis.” I don’t spell it “lis,” I just apply the rule of letter strings that you mentioned: -sts in writing reduces to -s in speech.

I imagine that all unnecessary punctuation will one day be abandoned.

“Necessary” and “unnecessary” are open to debate. Mostly it depends on what you’re used to. For example, it is possible to write German without capitalizing all the nouns. I think it would be a shame to lose such an elegant and, frankly, helpful feature of spelling, but others may say that capital letters are simply not needed. Take your pick.

Likewise, it is possible that the apostrophe will disappear from English spelling. We’ll spell “we’ll” as “well” and learn it as a separate word rather than as a contraction combining two words. And the spelling will cause massive confusion unless and until we get used to it. But at least we won’t (wont) have to worry about the distinction between “its” and “it’s.” The trick is, of course, that the possessive forms of personal pronouns and of one interrogative or relative pronoun never take the apostrophe that is used to mark the possessive everywhere else.

I think that in poetry standard punctuation and capitalisation are seldom needed unless the form is traditional.

What about prose? The same argument applies.

Poetry has its origin in song and story. Rhyme and rhythm were an aid to memory in oral traditions. In a literate culture, we can use sheet music to sing a song we’ve never heard before. Likewise, punctuation in poetry, as in prose, resembles notes on a musical score: it’s a guide to intonation.

Of course punctuation can be discarded in verse. The result will be a flat-looking poem that’s supposed to be recited in a computer-like monotone, like HAL singing “Daisy, Daisy,” in his waning moments. It’s as though the author were telling the reader, “I give up. Here, you make something of it, if you can.” Some readers may consider that interactive literature, of a sort.

To other readers, though, punctuationless — or mispunctuated — prose or poetry will resemble a person who considers clothing “traditional” and “unnecessary” and who insists on going shopping naked. Okay, whatever floats — or swamps — your boat. I can think of several reasons not to do it.

But I can’t be dogmatic one way or the other, because you never know: sometimes going punctuationless works well, and a poem can let line breaks do all the work.

And after all language either develops or dies.

“Development” is natural and inexorable. But languages “die” only when their native speakers go extinct. In the 14th century, the French witnessed a linguistic form of “punctuated equilibrium”: by the end of the century, grandparents were speaking Old French and their grandchildren, Middle French. How did they understand each other? Well, in that horrific century, there were precious few grandparents left alive anyway. Would the language have developed as it did without the extinction of grandparents? It would have been nice to know.

To find a native speaker of classical Latin, we’d literally have to dig one up. But Latin is still spoken in the form of its descendants, namely the Romance languages, just as proto-Germanic is spoken by its descendants in English and others. In that sense, then, there is little point in searching for the original, primordial language of humanity: we all speak it. And since we have this ancient treasure, let’s take good care of it: as we say here at Bewildering Stories, we like to dress up nicely and put on a good appearance.


Copyright © 2011 by Don Webb

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