Visit theallusionist.org/spaces to find out more about this topic and to listen to the episode.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, milk the udders of language. Coming up in today’s show:
Let’s hear that again:
What does it meeean? Find out imminently. Let’s limber up for the episode with a little light word history. I know you’re being kept awake, night after night, wondering why there is ‘disgruntled’ but no ‘gruntled’. The word disgruntled is not built from the same blocks as a pair of words like discontent and content, or disagree and agree, where the dis- suggests a kind of negative action. The dis in disgruntled is actually an intensifier, meaning extremely gruntled - gruntled being from a now obsolete verb meaning grumble or sulk. Alright, pedants, yes: now gruntled IS in the dictionary as a back-formation of disgruntled, thanks to PG Wodehouse using it in his 1938 novel The Code of the Woosters.
On with the show.
HZ: The Allusionist is a show about words, but today’s episode isn’t looking at words themselves, but what’s on either side of them: that is, nothingness.
If it weren’t for the absence of words, the words themselves would be rather incomprehensible - how do you know where one word ends and the next begins without the space between?
Since the spaces serve such a crucial function in language, I was pretty astonished to discover they are a lot younger than language itself. So to guide me on a journey through space, here’s Dr Kate Wiles, academic and the contributing editor of History Today.
KW: The Ancient Greeks put markers between their words. There were all sorts of different kinds - straight lines, dots. Egyptian hieroglyphs had a little marker to say this is the start of the word, which is the same as dividing up the words to indicate the word begins here and the next string of hieroglyphs is the rest of the word. And the Irish scribes decided to put a space in. Saves on ink.
HZ: Smart move, Irish scribes - but why did they need to do it?
KW: Christianity arrived in Ireland around the 6th century, and with it Latin, and they started to write in Latin alphabet instead of Ogham, which is like runes, based on the same principle of scoring straight lines into a stone or something.
HZ: Did Ogham not have anything to divide words?
KW: No. If you imagine a straight line across the page, that’s what they used to write their own language, which was primitive Irish, which turned into Old Irish. So when Christianity came, it brought the Latin language and the Latin alphabet - what we use to write English - and these Irish scribes weren’t first language speakers of Latin; they didn’t understand the words as immediately as a native speaker would.
If you listen to a foreign language, it’s just a string of sounds; and if you saw it, you wouldn’t be able to discern what the words were unless they were divided up. So they knew what the words were; it just hadn’t been necessary to divide them up before then. In the same way as we now have web and email addresses or hashtags; they don’t have the spaces in, but we can understand them, because as native speakers, we can see what the words are in there.
HZ: From 6th century Ireland, the craze for dividing words with spaces swept across the British Isles and then Europe, as pilgrims and scholars on research trips took spaces with them. But it took a while for writers really to master the space.
KW: But if you’re reading an Anglo-Saxon manuscript, as I spend a lot of the time doing, spacing is a bit patchy. You can’t go by their spacing. Sometimes it’s in the middle of the word; sometimes it’s between two words; sometimes you get a string of words together. Every scribe is different in so many ways, but in the spacing of words as well.
HZ: But, by about the 12th century, scribes had pretty much figured out spaces. To cram a couple of hundred years of major linguistic shifts into one short paragraph: the Normans invaded England in 106;, French and Latin became the predominant languages for writing stuff down; then after a while English did make a comeback as a written language, but instead of using the Old English alphabet they used the Roman alphabet and also the same writing systems they’d picked up through Latin, such as spaces.
KW: Spaces between words are dependant on this, but the way English and Latin work, it’s kind of one letter per sound. We’re representing sounds - some exceptions, for example ‘th’, and useless letters, like the B in ‘lamb’. So it’s not a 1:1 correspondence between letters and sounds, but that’s basically the principle it works under. And so you would just get a continuous string of letters. Something like Chinese, which is written based on sense, doesn’t need them, if you’ve got one symbol based on an entire sense unit, then the next one is already distinct from the previous one, so you don’t need spaces in the same way. So it’s very dependent upon us having a phonemic alphabet.
HZ: What’s the influence of the shift from oral to written tradition?
KW: Punctuation has been very influenced by spoken language. When it was first introduced, it was because reading was done out loud; the idea of reading to yourself silently is very modern. So if you’re reading something out loud, particularly an unfamiliar text or something that needs to be presented, eg a religious text or oratory, you need to know where to pause and for how long. Different shapes denote different lengths of pause. So it’s not to do with the sense of the units it’s dividing; it’s to do with how you read and the rhythm. And that began to shift as reading became more private. You start to put in more things to help you make sense of it, rather than read it out blankly.
Clip of Anchorman:
Ron Burgundy: You stay classy, San Diego. I'm Ron Burgundy?
Ed Harken: Dammit. Who typed a question mark on the Teleprompter? For the last time, anything you put on that prompter, Burgundy will read!
HZ: Ron Burgundy in Anchorman, demonstrating the importance of punctuation in denoting tone, a system invented by the scholar and lexicographer Aristophanes of Byzantium around 200BC. I’m sure you’re thinking of him when you’re watching Anchorman.
KW: Anglo-Saxon introduced all sorts of other things as well, eg capital letters to start a sentence or paragraph, or to pick out something important.
HZ: What was starting a sentence before that?
KW: It was already all in capitals. Latin was all written, as you can see on monumental buildings and stone carvings, was written in great big capital letters - what we call majuscule. And those are really good for carving, because it’s a lot of straight lines, for carving on bone and wood and stone. When you’ve got a quill, you can be a lot nicer and more delicate. The Romans did have quills.
HZ: Quill’s no good for writing on the side of a building though.
KW: That’s when you want your hammer out. It goes hand in hand with the idea of dividing things up for sense, as well. You’re saying, “This is a meaningful unit that I want to mark the start of,” rather than just, “I’m reading here and there’ll be a longer pause to start something new.”
HZ: Today’s episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman. The Allusionist is a proud member of Radiotopia. Visit Radiotopia.fm to hear the greatest shows on earth. Your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is
nombril: noun, heraldic. The point halfway between fess point and the base of the shield. From the French for ‘navel’.
Try using it in an email today.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, with music by Martin Austwick. Dr Kate Wiles is the contributing editor at History Today. There are links to her work, plus pictures and bonus material about spaces at theallusionist.org/spaces.