The Evolution of Abbreviations and Punctuation

From Medieval Manuscripts to Modern Texting

Throughout this term, a recurring theme that has come up in our class discussions is how the evolution of book technology can be seen through the comparison of writing methods and sentence structure from medieval manuscripts to our modern day context in a digital age. The class on abbreviations and punctuation was very intriguing when relating ancient methods to our own modernized versions, because there are both similarities and distinct differences that define the technology and culture of the time period. 

From the assigned readings for this week, the chapters on “Punctuation”, “Abbreviation”, and “Numerals” from the Oxford Handbook for Latin Paleography stood out to me. This particular reading provided insightful perspective into the usage of abbreviation and punctuation in medieval manuscripts. One point from this reading that I personally found quite interesting was the fact that almost all manuscripts dated before the 6th century supposedly did not have punctuation written in the original copy and was added later by the reader. This is fascinating  because adding punctuation in certain places of a sentence can change the entire meaning all together. So there is a possibility that the meanings of different texts from antiquity to the 6th century could have very well been misinterpreted due to the later addition of punctuation. This point also brings up the functionality and purpose of medieval punctuation and if adding punctuation would truly change the meaning of a text.

Seeing how orality was more common due to literacy and language barriers I can see how punctuation’s purpose to direct the reader by telling them when to pause, or start a new sentence would have been integral to medieval documents and especially to texts used for public speaking such as church readings and liturgies. The functionality of punctuation persists into our digital age, and in some ways it is not so different. We use things like commas and periods to indicate pause and sentence ends similar to the way medieval punctuation was used. However, we live in a society where orality is more uncommon than silent reading, so the use of punctuation has changed to some extent. We commonly see punctuation used in different ways constantly, with meanings attached to separate uses. One point made in our class discussion revolved around the different ways to write the word “Ok” and the different meanings around these options. Writing Ok and Okay more or less gives a similar effect to the initial intention of the word meaning agreement, but when we get into writing it like “K.” or “okay…” we see a new meaning attached. By shortening it to just “K” and adding a period, it now represents an angry or dissatisfied agreement, and adding an ellipsis to the end of the word creates the effect of a confused or questioned agreement. We also see the use of things like emojis in our modern context, being pictorial displays of emotion or whole sentences which begin to blur the line between modern abbreviation and punctuation.

The readings also emphasized on the use of abbreviations in medieval texts. A point that we touched on in class that is also discussed in the readings is what dictated the use of abbreviation in medieval texts and how do we dictate abbreviation in our modern context? Well, in the readings we learned that one main use of abbreviations was to cut down the time and effort needed to copy large texts, which makes sense. This seems to be one of the main reasons for abbreviation, and is still one of the reasons we do it today. In casual digital conversation whether that is through text messaging or social media, we tend to abbreviate long words or phrases like “talk to you later = ttyl” or “On my way = omw”. It seems like medieval scribes would do this for the same reason, considering the immense number of different Latin abbreviations displayed in the readings. A point that we touched on in class discussion which I found interesting was how the context of the manuscript could dictate the use of abbreviation, implying that over-use of abbreviation might reduce the quality or dignity of the text. This can be related to how scholarly and academic writing is seen in our own lives. The majority of academic writing follows certain guidelines that discourage the use of abbreviation, contraction, and colloquial language. The question I am still wondering about is whether medieval scribes had their own guidelines which defined a quality piece of writing or whether the over-use of abbreviation might cause confusion and defeat the purpose of their use in the first place. 

I think relating medieval practices to our own uses can help us form a deeper understanding of their methodology and usage and in turn, help us understand and decode our own folios better. Understanding the purpose of either familiar or unfamiliar symbols, punctuation or abbreviations can also give us insight into the culture, economics and origin of these texts and the working process that went into producing these folios. Overall I was pleasantly surprised by this topic, originally thinking it was going to be rather boring, I was able to take away some interesting and valuable information.