The Rise and Fall of the Pilcrow, Part I

A Blog About Language
Sept. 25 2013 11:43 AM

The Rise and Fall of the Pilcrow, Part I

Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo.

Illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo

The following is the first of three excerpts from Keith Houston's new book, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks.

The orthographic world of ancient Greece was a sparse old place. When reading a contemporary manuscript, a literate Greek of Homer’s time would be faced with an UNBROKENSTREAMOF​LETTERS, all uppercase (because at that time there was no other case), with lines running alternately left-to-right and then right-to-left across the page in the boustrophedon, or "ox-turning," style, after a farmer driving his oxen across a field. Perhaps most cruelly, the visual signposts of punctuation that today we take for granted were completely absent. It was the reader’s unenviable lot to tease out words, clauses, and even sentences from this densely packed zigzag of characters.

Boustrophedon writing at Gortyn, Crete, circa sixth/fifth century BC.

Photo by Phillip Hughes from Woodstock, Georgia.


Despite some recent scholarly murmurs to the contrary, it is generally held that the painstaking task of interpreting a document like this would have been accomplished by reading it aloud. At the time, the written word was very much an adjunct to spoken language, and silent reading was the exception rather than the rule. Physically pronouncing the syllables helped a practiced reader to decode and retain their meaning, and to discover the rhythms and cadences lurking in the unbroken text.

Aristophanes of Byzantium, librarian of the great institution at Alexandria in the third century BC, was the first to give readers some room to breathe when he created a system of marks for augmenting texts written according to the rules of classical rhetoric. Statements were broken into clauses of varying length and meaning, and a skilled orator would pause or draw breath to emphasize each such unit. Aristophanes defined a system of dots, or distinctiones, to indicate the points at which these pauses should take place—a boon for non-native readers, such as the Romans, who were attempting to decipher Greek literature. A century later, the grammarian Dionysius Thrax described the system in his essay The Art of Grammar:

There are three punctuation marks—the full [or high dot], the intermediate [or middle dot], and the subordinate [or underdot]. The full marks the completion of the sense, the intermediate is used to show where the reader can take a breath, and the subordinate is used if the sense is not yet complete but still lacks something. What is the difference between the full and the subordinate? It is one of duration; in the case of the full, the time interval is long, whereas it is without exception short for the subordinate.

The so-called intermediate (·), subordinate (.), and full (˙) dots, signaling short, medium, and long pauses respectively, were placed after corresponding rhetorical units called the komma, kolon, and periodos. Though it took centuries for these marks of punctuation to crystallize into the familiar visual forms we know today, their modern names are not so far removed: "comma," "colon," and "period."

Unlike modern punctuation, which authors use chiefly to make clear the semantics, or meaning, of their words, Aristophanes’s dots were intended solely as aids for reading aloud; distinctiones were to be added retroactively by a reader preparing a text to be performed in front of an audience. An intermediate dot, for instance, did not turn the preceding words into a formal rhetorical komma, but rather marked the pause for breath that a reader would take after speaking such a clause aloud, while texts were not terminated with a periodos, or high dot, since after the final letter there was nothing more to punctuate (or read!). Even now, many marks of punctuation still act wholly or largely as vocal stage direction: parentheses denote the typographical equivalent of a spoken aside; the exclamation mark implies a surprised, rising tone of voice; and the question mark is as much about inflection as it is about interrogation.

Aristophanes’s system found use only fitfully, and later, as Rome usurped Greece with characteristically brutal efficiency, his distinctiones had to contend with the Roman disdain for punctuation in general. Cicero, for instance, an orator, philosopher, and politician from the first century BC who crops up with indecent frequency in any discussion of punctuation or grammar, looked down his aquiline nose at it. He considered that the end of a sentence "ought to be determined not by the speaker’s pausing for breath, or by a stroke interposed by a copyist, but by the constraint of the rhythm." And although the zigzag boustrophedon style of writing had long since been replaced with lines running uniformly left to right, a brief, unrelated Roman experiment1 of SEPARATING·WORDS·WITH·DOTS had by the end of the second century been abandoned in favor of the Greeks' monotonous, unspaced scriptio continua. For the most part, the Romans had no truck with punctuation.

With all this emphasis on reading aloud, it might come as a surprise that the paragraph—a purely semantic construct, with no counterpart in spoken language—had been marked up in texts even before the advent of Aristophanes’s multifarious dots, and continued in common use throughout punctuation’s dark days at the hands of the Romans.

Each horizontal mark, or paragraphos, in this copy of Menander’s Sicyonians from the third century BC, indicates a change in speaker somewhere on the corresponding line. The final paragraphos of the main text is accompanied by a coronis, a decorative symbol marking the end of a section or work.

Ménandre: Sicyoniens; MP 3 1308.1. inv. 2272 e. Image courtesy of Jean Gascou of the Institut de Papyrologie, Paris Sorbonne.

The paragraphos, from the Greek para-, "beside," and graphein, "write," first appeared around the fourth century BC and took the form of a horizontal line or angle in the margin to the left of the main text. The exact meaning of the paragraphos varied with the context in which it was used and the proclivities of the author, but most often it marked a change of topic or structure: in drama it might denote a change of speaker, in poetry a new stanza, and in an everyday document it could demarcate anything from a new section to the end of a periodos. In some uses, the symbol itself marked the start of the new section; in others, it served only to draw attention to a break elsewhere on the specified line.

The concept of the paragraph weathered changing tastes in punctuation better than word, clause, and sentence breaks, and by the second century AD, paragraphs were marked in a number of ways even as Aristophanes’s dots found themselves out on their ear. The paragraphos soldiered on in a growing variety of forms such as Γ and γ, while some readers dispensed with a mark altogether and instead outdented or enlarged the first few letters of each paragraph to yield litterae notabiliores—literally, "notable letters." Still others inserted the letter K for kaput, or "head," to mark the "head" of a new argument or thesis, and it was this particular convention that would eventually give rise to the pilcrow.

This motley collection of paragraph marks was typical of the state of punctuation at the dawn of the first millennium: written by one person and marked up by another (who most probably shared Cicero’s distaste for the form), texts were punctuated inconsistently or not at all. Writing was, however, about to be well and truly shaken up by the biggest upheaval since Rome’s fall from Republic to Empire. The emergence of Christianity a scant few decades after Jesus’s death would change the face of written language on a grand scale, and almost as an afterthought, it would kick-start the pilcrow’s journey from K for kaput to a fully formed mark in its own right.


1The origins of the Romans’ flirtation with dots between words, which were used mainly in monumental inscriptions, are not certain. Scholarly speculation fingers Greek influences, though the obvious candidate—Aristophanes’s system of dots from the third century BC—may not be to blame. Instead, it is suggested that Roman stonemasons revived and modified an even older Greek practice, employed sporadically during the fifth century BC, of separating words with vertical rows of three dots (⋮).