Bryn Mawr Classical Review 94.03.03


M.B. Parkes, Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West. Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993. Pp. xvi + 327; 74 plates. ISBN 0-520-07941-8.


Reviewed by Henry Hoenigswald, University of Pennsylvania.

This is an intriguing book on a subject which is intriguing -- epigraphically, palaeographically, literarily, and esthetically. The purpose of this note is nevertheless to sound a note of disappointment -- not for a moment disappointment with the author, but with one sector of his potential readership: linguists. It is through their fault entirely that certain elementary but very necessary questions hardly ever get a hearing. To provide a remedy would take more than a book review; but the trouble may at least be hinted at.

If we ask what it is that punctuation is supposed to spell, the awkward technical answer is: certain 'suprasegmentals', viz., on the one hand, word division and lexical accents, and, on the other, intonations and syntactic stresses. The presence of intonation -- speech melody, that is -- could be a true universal, found in all languages. Its importance is best illustrated by the fact that, in many languages, the 'sentence' is defined as a stretch such that it occurs under a minimum free intonation, i.e. one which may also occur over a complete discourse (thus, the English utterances They want to but they can't. and They want to. But they can't. with their different intonations are one sentence and two sentences respectively). Syntactic stress is found much more rarely. But so far from being secondary additions to (1) respectable vowels, consonants, tones, and lexical accents, and to (2) word boundaries, (3) the intonations and, where they exist, the syntactic stresses are of overriding centrality. For what it is worth, the experience from language acquisition in children also points to their primacy. It is really intolerable that syntactic description and syntactic analysis should still relegate these fundamentals to an ancillary place. One reason must be that the conventional writing traditions of the world have at all times slighted them, and that it is in their tender years that linguists, for all their brave words, come by their prejudices.

Punctuations represent an effort to make up for this shortcoming. The effort is disorderly, not because the entities punctuations aim to write are less clear-cut than segmental sounds but because they select these entities in haphazard ways. Nobody can deny that the English sentences Ány child can do this. and Any chíld can do this. differ just as categorically from each other in their syntactic stressing as do any and many, or child and wild in their segmental makeup. Now, neither the evidence from the Romance languages nor our shaky typological argumentation from the general nature of accent systems make it particularly probable that Latin had this particular distinction, and it is unlikely that punctuation, consistently applied, would tell us anything different. But in principle, whatever else they are, and however unevenly available, unsystematic, and difficult to interpret they may be, punctuation signs and related devices such as space and layout per cola et commata remain as precious a source of information as characters, syllabaries, and ideograms.

Puncts may serve as word dividers, as they did in the Linear B and in the Cypriot syllabary, and as they did generally in Latin. For Parkes the ancient period functions of course only as a prelude to the Middle Ages, and, as the title says, he limits him self to the West. He tells us almost nothing about the possible and probable epigraphic antecedents of Latin manuscript punctuation, let alone about musical notations and neumes, and what little he does tell us is not always quite correct: Etruscan inscriptions on stone and clay do not particularly favor the one-punct word separator which is so characteristic of Latin inscriptions; whereas it is precisely the great handwritten mummy text that does. Linguistically, the boundaries between Latin words, (pseudo-)pausal only insofar as they play their subtle role in poetry, carry themselves no 'meaning' beyond being part of a word's shape. In this they are quite different, in kind and not merely in duration, from the breaks in the flow of speech that combine not with consonants and vowels but (in very many languages) with cadences of the voice to form meaningful intonations. One pictures Latin clauses and sentences as consisting of (1) words with their segmental constituents, lexical accents, and what not and (2) intonations, and only then both in construction with one another. Nothing, in any event, is gained by applying the term 'pause' indiscriminately, even where punctuation serves both kinds of break Modern orthographic practice makes a little more sense: we set off words with spaces and leave intonations to the uncertain mercy of our commas, full stops, exclamation marks, and their likes.

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 (56-57).

The author did not have to discuss the framework in which belong the phenomena he constantly deals with, and he rarely does. Instead he will ask just how, and how well, punctuation signs serve a phrasing which may or may not be universal, knowable, and given. Thus he notes but does not discuss St. Augustine's distinction -- familiar in its intonational aspect to students of spoken English -- between percontatio 'wh- question' and interroagatio 'yes-or-no question' (and not, with Parkes [206], 'rhetorical question'). It is no accident that even his bibliography ignores Maurice P. Cunningham's classic 'Review of the evidence of classical authors on phrasing' (in 'Some phonetic aspects of word order patterns in Latin', Proc. APhS 101 [1957] 481-505), or that he mentions the role of meter only when he touches on clausulae.

Parkes has built his work around his excellent photographic plates; he wants his readers to study it accordingly . Their compliance will be well rewarded. Despite the occasional repetitiousness of this plan, and despite the absence of an index (not compensated for by the useful list of terms devoid of page references), his effort has been more than successful.