The Book at the BBC: Book of the Week

Some exciting news! The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Ex­plor­a­tion of the Most Power­ful Ob­ject of Our Time is BBC Radio 4’s next Book of the Week! The first 15-minute episode will be broadcast on Radio 4 tomorrow, Monday 14th May, at 09:45 BST (it will be repeated again tomorrow night at 00:30) and will be followed by four more daily episodes to be broadcast and repeated at the same times for the rest of the week.

I must thank Caroline Raphael of Dora Productions for getting the ball rolling and Peter Hoare and Celia de Wolff of Pier Productions for producing the programme itself. Libby Spurrier did a great job in selectively abridging what is not exactly a short book (my fault!) into manageable 15-minute chunks. Lastly, the extracts will be read by Deborah Findlay — I’d love to say she has done an excellent job (and based on her past work, I’m sure she has) but I haven’t even heard it yet myself. I’ll be as excited as anyone else to listen to the first episode tomorrow.

So: I hope you’ll tune in! If you can’t make it to a radio or a computer at 09:45 tomorrow,* the programme will be available shortly afterwards on BBC iPlayer. If you enjoy it (or if you don’t!), please drop by here to let me know what you think in the comments section.

*
As an aside, if you can’t wait that long for some Book-related audio content, I recently found out that all of the sessions at Adelaide Writers’ Week 2017 (including my own) are now available on SoundCloud. You can listen to my chat with Michael Williams here

Housekeeping: your data at Shady Characters

Readers in the EU may have heard about something called the GDPR, or “General Data Protection Regulation”. This is an upcoming change to EU law that clarifies and expands on prior rules relating to how organisations (even one-man-bands such as Shady Characters) obtain personal data such as email addresses and how they manage that data once obtained. As such, I’ve updated my page on Privacy, Cookies & Personal Data to make it clear how I handle personal data. I’d encourage you to take a moment to read the new wording, but in brief:

  • If you have ever commented here and provided a valid email address, I will have your email address on file. I will delete or amend that email address, or any of your comments, on request.
  • If you have ever signed up to the Shady Characters mailing list,* your email address is held by Google’s Feedburner service. To stop receiving email notifications of new posts, either click the “unsubscribe” link in an email newsletter or contact me directly.
  • Shady Characters uses Google Analytics to anonymously track visitor numbers. This requires the use of small pieces of data called “cookies”. Google promises to comply with all relevant privacy legislation (such as the GDPR) but, if you prefer, you can disable cookies for this site entirely.

If you have any questions about what data is held here at Shady Characters or you wish to have any or all of your own personal data amended or deleted as described above, please get in touch.

*
Conversely, if you haven’t signed up but you’d like to do so, please head down to the bottom of this page and enter your email in the sign-up box. After confirming your subscription you’ll receive email notifications of all new articles, which is rarely more than once every couple of weeks or so. 

Miscellany № 84: zut alors!

Happy new year! Here’s a post that I certainly did not expect to crest 1,400 words.


There have been a rash of recent news stories from Brittany, the westernmost region of mainland France, concerning parents wishing to give their children traditional Breton names. In September 2017, for example, Agence France-Presse published an account of a baby boy named “Fañch” whose parents were told that per government rules their son could not have a tilde in his name. As the French government’s website explains,

L’alphabet utilisé doit être celui qui sert à l’écriture du français. Les caractères alphabétiques qui ne sont pas utilisés dans la langue française ne sont donc pas autorisés (par exemple le « ñ »).1

[The alphabet used must be the one used for writing French. Alphabetic characters that are not used in the French language are therefore not allowed (e.g. “ñ”).]

“Fañch” is the regional equivalent of the French “François” or the English “Francis”, and although it is a Breton name rather than a French one, it is by no means unusual. There are prominent Breton writers named Fañch Peru and Fañch Broudig, for example, and so the parents of young Fañch Bernard were understandably upset when their choice of name was rejected. The boy’s father, Jean-Christophe, vowed that “He will have his tilde, that’s for sure”, and AFP reported that he plans to appeal the ruling.

Then, only a week or so ago, I came across a similar report from thelocal.fr, this time claiming that a different Breton couple has been told that they cannot christen their son “Derc’hen” — again, another traditional Breton name — for the same reason. First tildes, now apostrophes: does Brittany have a problem with its native tongue? Does France have a problem with the Breton language? Now, I’m no more than an armchair Francophile, but if I was to hazard a guess then I’d say the answer to both questions is yes. And also no. It’s complicated.


France’s passionate and sporadically vexed relationship with its mother tongue is best seen in the existence of the Académie française. Founded in 1635 by Cardinal Richelieu,2 this state-sponsored body is emblematic of the French establishment’s fiercely protective attitude towards its, well, lingua franca, and, as such, it has held firmly to the tiller of French grammar and usage for more than three centuries. Fittingly for such a durable institution, its members are called les immortels after the Académie’s motto, ‎À l’immortalité, or “to immortality”. The larger part of the Académie’s duty to defend the French language takes the form of a dictionary that attempts to replace commonly-used foreign terms such as “weekend”, “email” and “podcast” with neologisms such as fin de semaine, courriel and diffusion pour baladeur. This last term translates directly as “broadcast for walkman”; little wonder the Académie is sometimes accused of being behind the times.3

Beyond its lexicographic work, the Académie issues official statements whenever linguistic evolution takes a notable turn — which, more often than not, is in a direction that les immortels do not especially like. Given that its membership is and has always been conspicuously male, pale and stale, this happens rather a lot these days. As an example, when, in 1998, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin directed that women serving on his cabinet should be referred to as the feminine la ministre rather than the more conventional le ministre, the Académie’s president called an emergency meeting to discuss this assault on the French language.4 More recently, the proposed use of bullets to formulate gender-inclusive terms such as étudiant·e·s to mean a group of students with both male and female members, where ordinarily the masculine étudiants would take precedence over the feminine étudiantes, led the Académie to brand the move a “mortal danger” to the French language.5 With immortality comes a certain ossification of viewpoint, it would seem.

France’s hands-on approach to its language extends far beyond the Académie’s ivory towers. In 1990, a different quango called the Conseil supérieur de la langue française (the CSLF, or Superior Council on the French Language) published guidelines for a spelling reform affecting about 2,400 words such as oignon (onion), now to be spelled ognon to better match its pronunciation; paraître (to appear),* which was to be shorn of its silent circumflex; porte-monnaie (wallet), whose hyphen was to be dropped, and so on.6 The reforms attracted little notice at the time but in 2016, when the changes were finally adopted by educational publishers, there was a general and predictable outcry.7 Ironically, by this time the CSLF had been abolished8 and so the French media turned its accusatory gaze on the Académie française. For once entirely innocent, the Académie found itself in the unique position of having to tamp down a linguistic controversy rather than fan its flames.9

Then there are France’s naming laws.

From the French Revolution on, under choix du prénom (choice of first name) rules parents had to choose from a list of prescribed names when christening their children. The law was not always perfectly applied (Le Parisien reports that a “Sue Ellen” sneaked through the net in 1986, when American soap opera Dallas was at its height), but it nevertheless placed considerable constraints on how children could be named. Having finally been struck off the books in 1993, parents can now choose essentially any name they like as long as the registrar is happy that it will not unduly harm the child.1

And yet, there remains one final consideration: that the only alphabetic characters allowed in names are those used in the French language itself. In Brittany, this is a problem.


The Breton language is emphatically not French. It’s a Celtic language, related closely to Cornish and more distantly to Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx, and was first exported to the northwest coast of France by Britons who emigrated there in the 5th and 6th centuries.10 As with those other languages, Breton has not always had a smooth relationship with its host country; notably, it was only in 2008 that France’s constitution was amended to give equal status to regional languages such as Alsatian, Breton, and Corsican. Naturally, the Académie française bemoaned the announcement even as Breton cultural leaders rejoiced. British newspaper The Telegraph quoted one Per Vari Kerloc’h, a Breton druid, who took the opportunity to twist the knife a little:

Kerloc’h, the leader of the Gorsedd of Breton Druids, which champions Breton and Cornish culture, insisted the changes were fully compatible with the nation’s distinguished past. […] “Unlike today’s members of the L’Académie Française [sic], many great French writers admitted that regional languages and cultures were part of France’s heritage,” he said.12

The Telegraph did not mention whether Kerloc’h’s apostrophe exists in the officially-recorded version of his name, but it must have given les immortels palpitations all the same.

All this brings us back to 2018 and to Fañch and Derc’hen — and it explains, to a degree, why their names caused the local registrars such consternation. Those who read, write or speak minority languages often do not have the easiest of times using government services, and France’s naming rules, still adrift from the constitution’s more equitable position, are a case in point.

At last, though, things may be changing for the better. Just a few days ago, the public prosecutor of Rennes, where Derc’hen’s parents registered his birth, announced that the boy will be allowed to keep his apostrophe. Referring to the 2014 Ministry of Justice bulletin that had codified the ban on non-French characters,13 Jean-François Thony explained that although the standard French accents (é, è and ê), the diaeresis (ë) and the cedilla (ç) were definitively allowed, nowhere were marks of punctuation explicitly banned.14

For the parents of Fañch Bernard, however, things are as yet unresolved. The same 2014 circular that lets Derc’hen’s apostrophe slip through the net is quite clear on the status of other marks:

Tout autre signe diacritique attaché à une lettre ou ligature ne peut être retenu pour l’établissement d’un acte de l’état civil.

[Any other diacritical sign attached to a letter or ligature cannot be used for the establishment of a civil status document.]

As far as the French state is concerned, the Breton ñ is still forbidden. Fañch’s parents will get their day in court — Le Monde reports that their appeal will be heard at some point in 2018 — but for now, it seems that France is not quite ready to embrace all its languages equally.

1.
“Choix Du prénom De l’enfant”, Service-public.Fr, 2017.
2.
“L’histoire”, www.academie-francaise.Fr.
3.
Kim Willsher, “French Must Drop ’ineffective barriers’ Against Other Languages – Minister”, The Guardian, 2015.
4.
“Feminising French”, BBC News, 1998.
5.
David Chazan, “Gender-Inclusive French Is a ‘mortal danger’ to the Language, Académie Française Warns”, The Telegraph, 2017.
6.
Conseil supérieur de la langue supérieur de la langue française, “Les Rectifications De l’orthographie”, 1990.
7.
Kim Willsher, “Not the Oignon: Fury As France Changes 2,000 Spellings and Drops Some Accents”, The Guardian, 2016.
8.
“Historique - Langue française Et Langues De France”, Ministère De La Culture.
9.
Mohammed Aïssaoui, “Réforme De l’orthographe : L’Académie française réagit Enfin”, lefigaro.Fr, 2016.
10.
“Breton Language”, Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1998.
11.
“Welsh National Anthem”, wales.Com.
12.
Peter Allen, “France’s L’Académie Française Upset by Rule to Recognise Regional Tongues”, The Telegraph, 2008.
13.
“Circulaire Du 23 Juillet 2014 Relative à l’état Civil”, 2014.
14.
“La Justice Autorise l’apostrophe Dans Le prénom Derc’hen”, lemonde.Fr, 2018.
*
I wrote an article about the threat to the circumflex for the New York Times, here
None of this will come as a surprise to natives of Iceland, Denmark, Sweden or certain other countries that have similar laws, but I was taken aback! 
Not coincidentally, Brittany’s anthem, Bro Gozh ma Zadoù, is sung to the same tune as the national anthem of Wales, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, and that of Cornwall.11 

The 2017 Shady Characters gift guide

The year is coming to an end and that can mean only one thing: it’s time for me to promote my books!

I’m kidding. Sort of, at least. Fatherhood has occupied most of the time that, in previous years, I would have spent hunting down punctuation-related gifts for you, the discerning reader. That said, I’ve been interested in the comings and goings surrounding emoji (“picture writing”, or symbols like “😊” and “🎁”) for some time now, and in doing so I came across Josh Williams’ pleasingly minimal “Unicalendar” for the year 2018.

Josh Williams' Unicalendar 2018
Josh Williams’ “Unicalendar 2018”, featuring emoji stickers ready to label important dates. (Image courtesy of Josh Williams.)

At 12″ by 24″, Williams’ letterpress calendar carries the entirety of 2018 on a single sheet and comes with set of adhesive foil emoji stickers with which to mark significant dates. I’d say that it would make a great gift for a typographically-minded friend or family member, but given that Williams is printing a limited edition of only 200 copies, maybe you’d prefer to get your own order in first!

The Book. Image courtesy of Sam Otis.
Image courtesy of Sam Otis.

Now, then, back to me. Book sales are one of the main ways that this site is supported, and so, if you haven’t already ordered a copy of The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Ex­plor­a­tion of the Most Power­ful Ob­ject of Our Time, might I humbly suggest that now would be a great time to do so? It’s a 400-odd page journey through the history of books and writing, starting with cuneiform and hieroglyphics and bringing us all the way to the twentieth century with the advent of Monotypes, Linotypes, and the optical and computerised typesetting that succeeded them. Reviewers seemed to like it, Steven Heller among them, who wrote in Eye Magazine that:

Hun­dreds of books about books have been pub­lished dur­ing the past cen­tury…I will not claim that this one is the very best of all time. Yet The Book is possibly the best of our time.

Image courtesy of Jason Booher.

Alternatively, why not go old school and pick up a copy of Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks? Although it was based on material from this site, it is greatly expanded and covers symbols that have been only tangentially explored here, such as quotation marks, dashes, hyphens, asterisks and daggers. It was a lot of fun to write, and I did my best to make it an enjoyable read too.


So: that’s it from me for 2017. As ever, thank you all for continuing to visit, comment, and email! Enjoy the holiday season and the New Year that follows it, and see you all in 2018!

Miscellany № 83: Thomas Jefferson’s ivory polyptych

“An ivory what?” you may well ask. In the process of researching and writing The Book (which is, need I say, available from all good bookshops), I came across any number of tidbits that lay just fractionally below the interesting-ness threshold required for inclusion in the book. One discovery in particular, though, has had me kicking myself since I first handed in the manuscript back in 2015, and I still wish I’d found a way to incorporate it into the narrative. Here it is!


Writing media have always been defined by a tension between cost, quality and utility. In ancient China, for example, writers had to choose between tall, narrow strips of bamboo or larger sheets of silk as their writing medium.1 Bamboo was cheap and plentiful and, strung into mats unrolled from right to left, it was the driving force behind the East Asian convention of writing text from top to bottom rather than left to right. Its principal drawback was that it was also very heavy. A learned Chinese reader was said to have read many cartloads of books, emphasising their weight rather than their quantity.2 Featherweight silk, on the other hand, was expensive to buy but exquisite to write upon, and was preferred for elaborate illustrations or important documents.3 (Paper, when it arrived, split the difference between the two, but that’s another story.)

A writing board set, or diptych, found in an ancient shipwreck off Uluburun in Turkey. (© 2015 Robert Payton.)
A writing board set, or diptych, found in an ancient shipwreck off Uluburun in Turkey. Dated to around the fourteenth century BCE, it is the oldest such artefact ever found. (Robert Payton, “The Ulu Burun Writing-Board Set,” Anatolian Studies 41 (1991): fig. 4. © 2015 Robert Payton.)

The Greco-Roman experience was similar. Though the conventional view of an ancient scribe is of a writer toiling over an unrolled papyrus scroll, papyrus was neither versatile nor robust enough for everyday use: it was fragile, sometimes wearing away against a reader or writer’s clothes, and it required a flat surface on which to write.4,5 The average Roman-about-town relied instead on a diptych, or writing tablet, fashioned from a pair of hinged pieces of wood hollowed out to hold a thin layer of beeswax, in which they wrote with a simple pointed stylus. Back at home, their notes could be copied onto papyrus for safekeeping and then erased from their diptych with the other end of the stylus, which was flattened like a spatula for just that purpose.5 Like the ancient Chinese, the Romans had to choose between strong and delicate, cheap and expensive, portable and static.

Thomas Jefferson's ivory notebooks
Jefferson’s Ivory Pocket Notebooks. © Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. Photo by Edward Owen.

What does this have to do with Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father and third President of the United States of America, and what was his ivory “polyptych”? The clue is in the name. In a general sense, diptych means “folded in two”, but for the Greeks it carried the specific connotation of a folding, two-part writing tablet. (Today it is more often applied to bipartite paintings such as altarpieces.)6 Triptych means “threefold” and polyptych, by extension, “manifold”. An ivory polyptych, then, is an ivory notebook of many pages — and that is exactly what Jefferson used each day to record temperature, wind direction, weather, bird migrations and many other indicators of the climate and season.

Writing Tablet and Lid
Ivory writing tablet with wax inlay, French, circa 1340-1360. (CC0 image courtesy of the Walters Art Museum. Acquired by Henry Walters, 1901. Accession number 71.283.)

Jefferson was following a long-held tradition. Portable, erasable writing tablets continued to be used from Roman times onward (there’s a particularly fine medieval example shown here, barely a few inches on a side), while ivory notebooks in particular became fashionable in the 18th and 19th centuries. Robert Payton, late of the Museum of London, and who kindly provided the image of the Uluburun writing set above, told me that they were popular with ladies of a certain station in life:

Ladies visiting each other used to keep notes on very small ivory tablets well into the beginning of the 20th century; similar tablets were also used by ladies to mark down dancing partners at formal dances in the 19th century.

Miss Havisham of Dickens’ Great Expectations was one such 19th century lady. Seeking to write an IOU of sorts,

She took from her pocket a yellow set of ivory tablets, mounted in tarnished gold, and wrote upon them with a pencil in a case of tarnished gold that hung from her neck.

Late 19th century ivory notebook, with three ivory leaves between covers decorated in gold
Late 19th century ivory notebook, with three ivory leaves between covers decorated in gold. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 image courtesy of the British Museum. Museum number 1978,1002.767.)

The compact, reusable nature of an ivory notebook would have suited Jefferson down to the ground. Obsessive as he was about his daily observations — his house at Monticello bore a weathervane connected to a compass rose on the ceiling of one of its porticoes, and his pockets were weighed down with gadgets such as a thermometer, a compass, a spirit level and a globe — his ivory polyptych let him take notes with a pencil throughout the day before later copying them onto a more permanent medium.7 His daily routine, in other words, was not so different from that of a literate Greek or Roman. And though it may be stretching the analogy just a bit, if we consider that today many of us make ephemeral notes on our smartphones and (ahem) our tablets before sorting through them at a later time, we too are walking in the footsteps of our ancestors. Writing technologies change over time; people, not so much.


1.
Tsuen-Hsuin Tsien, “Preface”, in Written on Bamboo & Silk : The Beginnings of Chinese Books & Inscriptions, 2004, xxi-xxiv.
2.
Endymion Porter Wilkinson, “1. Manuscripts on Bamboo and Wood”, in Chinese History: A Manual, 2000, 444-47.
3.
Tsuen-Hsuin Tsien, “Silk As Writing Material”, in Written on Bamboo & Silk : The Beginnings of Chinese Books & Inscriptions, 2004, 126-44.
4.
Adam Bülow-Jacobsen, “Writing Materials in the Ancient World”, in The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology, ed. Roger Bagnall, 2009, 3-29.
5.
Naphtali Lewis, “The Manufacturing Process and Its Products”, in Papyrus in Classical Antiquity, 1974, 34-69.
6.
“Diptych”, oxforddictionaries.Com.
7.
“‘I Rise With the Sun’”, monticello.Org.