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This is a pilcrow: ¶. They crop up surprisingly frequently, bookending paragraphs on websites with a typographic bent, for instance, and teaming up with the section symbol in legal documents to form picturesque reference marks such as §3, ¶7. The pilcrow even appears in Microsoft Word, where it adorns a button which reveals hidden characters such as spaces and carriage returns. (Click on that button, in fact, and a multitude of pilcrows will appear, one at the end of each line of text.)
For all this quiet ubiquity, the pilcrow gets short shrift in typographic reference books. Take the trouble to look it up and it becomes apparent that in most cases the humble pilcrow warrants only a few lines, dismissed briskly as a “paragraph mark”.[?] The more generous definitions might run to mentioning that it has fallen out of common use and that it is sometimes used to indicate a footnote.[?] No mention of where its reverse-P shape comes from, or its name; for the pilcrow, this is as good as it gets.
This is a crying shame. The pilcrow is not just some typographic curiosity, useful only for livening up a coffee-table book on graphic design or pointing the way to a paragraph in a mortgage deed, but a living, breathing character with its roots in the earliest days of punctuation. Born in ancient Rome, refined in medieval scriptoria, appropriated by England’s most famous modern typographer and finally rehabilitated by the personal computer, the story of the pilcrow is intertwined with the evolution of modern writing. It is the quintessential shady character.
The orthographic world of ancient Greece was a sparse old place. A literate Greek of Homer’s time reading a contemporary manuscript would be faced with an UNBROKENSTREAMOFLETTERS, all of the same upper case (because at that time there was no other case)[?]; not only that, but texts were composed in a style called boustrophedon, or ‘ox-turning’, where the lines ran alternately left-to-right and then right-to-left across the page in the manner of a farmer driving his oxen across his field.[?] Perhaps most cruelly, the visual signposts of punctuation which today we take for granted were completely absent, and it was the reader’s unenviable lot to tease out words, clauses and even sentences from this densely-packed zig-zag of characters.
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. Physically pronouncing the syllables helped a practised reader to decode and retain their meaning, and to discover the rhythms and cadences lurking in the unbroken text.[?] In these ancient times the written word was very much an adjunct to spoken language, and silent reading was the exception rather than the rule.
Aristophanes of Byzantium, librarian of the great institution at Alexandria in the 3rd century BC, was the first to give readers some room to breathe, so to speak, when he created a system of marks for augmenting texts written according to the rules of classical rhetoric.[?] A skilled orator would habitually pause after each unit of rhetorical sense, and so Aristophanes defined a series of dots to call attention to where these pauses should take place — a boon in particular for the increasing numbers of non-native readers (such as the Romans) attempting to decipher Greek literature.[?] The 2nd century BC grammarian Dionysius Thrax described the system in his essay The Art of Grammar:
There are three dots: final, middle, underdot. And the final dot is a sign for a complete thought, while the middle is a sign taken up for a breath, and the underdot is a sign for a thought which is not yet complete, but is still wanting.
How is a [final] dot different to an underdot? In duration; for in the [final] dot there is a long pause, while in the underdot it is quite short.[?]
The so-called ‘middle’ (‘·’), ‘under’ (‘.’) and ‘final’ (‘˙’) dots were each placed after corresponding rhetorical units called the komma, kolon and periodos. Though it took centuries for these marks of punctuation to crystallise into more familiar visual forms, their modern names are not so far removed, and the ‘comma’, ‘colon’ and ‘period’ are still very much relevant today.
Unlike their modern counterparts, which impart semantic meaning to a text, Aristophanes’ dots were meant only as aids to reading aloud. A ‘·’, for instance, did not demarcate a rhetorical komma as such but only the pause for breath that a reader would take after reading one aloud. The importance attached to the individual reader’s interpretation of a text was so great, in fact, that not a single surviving manuscript prior to the Middle Ages has been found to be punctuated in the writer’s own hand;[?] only when a reader prepared a text to be delivered aloud would it be annotated as such. Even now, many marks of punctuation still function wholly or largely as vocal stage direction: parentheses are the typographical signposts 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’ system found use only fitfully,[?] and later, as Greece was usurped by Rome with characteristically brutal efficiency, it had to contend with the Roman disdain for punctuation in general. Cicero, for instance, the 1st century BC orator, philosopher and politician 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”.[?] While the practice of writing in the boustrophedon style had long since passed, Roman experiments in SEPARATING·WORDS·WITH·DOTS, especially in monumental inscriptions, had been abandoned by the end of the 2nd century and Roman texts of the time were most often written in monotonous, unspaced scriptio continua.[?]
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’ multifarious dots. The paragraphos, from the Greek para-, ‘beside’, and graphein, ‘write’, was a mark of punctuation that first appeared around the 4th century BC,[?] and which took the form of a horizontal line or angle in the margin to the left of the main text. The exact meaning of a paragraphos varied both 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 line.[?]
The paragraph proved to be more robust in the face of changing tastes in punctuation than word, clause and sentence breaks had been, and by the 2nd century AD paragraphs were marked in a number of ways. The paragraphos soldiered on, albeit in a growing variety of forms such as ‘Γ’ and ‘γ’,[?] while some texts dispensed with a mark altogether and chose instead to outdent and enlarge 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 mean the ‘head’ of a new argument or thesis,[?] and it is this particular paragraph mark which 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 likely shared Cicero’s distaste for the form), texts were punctuated inconsistently or not at all. Punctuation was, however, about to be well and truly shaken up by the biggest upheaval since Rome’s fall from Republic to Empire. The arrival of Christianity 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.