Monday, November 30, 2009

Spacey -- like it that way

Yesterday's On Language column in the NYTimes Magazine was worth reading because I learned things I had never heard before about something I've taken for granted. I love this kind of discovery. Caleb Crain wrote about why we put spaces between our words as we write. So people can read it easily. "Elementary, my dear Watson." Well, yes but there's history. In the earliest writing there were no spaces. Then for an unknown reason spaces were used a short while. But then they were lost again -- we are talking about the Western world. I have no idea what was going on in China or India. Says Mr. Crain, spaces weren't very important because all written language was phonetic and read aloud [to be memorized says he, although I think that's a questionable conjecture].

When the monks of the dark ages set about copying manuscripts, they did so in stone walled cells so they could read aloud as they worked in order to make sense of what they were doing. And so their voices would not distact their colleagues. But in the 7th and 8th century it seems priests reading Latin, in England and Ireland [what about elsewhere? We don't know.] had such a hard time that they began asking for spaces between words. This became the norm. Then, says Crain, reading silently became possible, which let individuals ponder about the meaning of what they were reading. And thus philosophizing came into fashion. Now I"m mutilating Crain's essay a little because I don't know how he knows what he says although I'm willing to accept that one can look at ancient manuscripts and see if they have spaces or not.

I had a taste of how difficult reading writing without spaces is when I read a book last summer called "The Singing Creek Where Willows Grow," which combined a biography of a child prodigy, Opal Whitely, and her childhood diary. She learned to read and write at a very young age and wrote with crayon, pencil, whatever she could find, on whatever paper she could find. There were photos of the actual diaries which were all in caps and without spaces and words ran over to the following line as well. At first glance it was utterly impossible and as I looked at it I saw that I could only begin to read it if I mumbled the words as I went along. Fortunately for the reader, at a later stage Opal actually transcribed her own childhood diaries into readable typescript. The diaries, by the way, were amazing to say the least. She had an incredible imagination and lived a very rough life in a logging community and was often whipped by her mother -- but never seemed to resent it. That is beside the point about spacing. Thank heavens we use spaces now -- but now we're slipping into emoticons and acronyms to the point of near unreadability in some of our communications. But that's another story.

1 comment:

Kass said...

That was SO interesting. Thanks for taking the time to share it. I find language and its use fascinating.