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Friday, August 19, 2016

The Mysterious History of the Ellipsis, From Medieval Subpuncting to Irrational Numbers | Slate Magazine (blog)


Photo: Cameron Hunt McNabb
Cameron Hunt McNabb, assistant professor at Southeastern University, where she specializes in medieval and early modern literature summarizes, "The punctuation mark of the ellipsis is perhaps the most unusual mark in the English language, for punctuation marks are designed to convey meaning by indicating relationships between ideas, but the ellipsis does the exact opposite." 

In medieval manuscripts, we find a mark—sometimes called subpuncting or underdotting—that is used to indicate the omission of a word or phrase.
Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

It simply indicates that something has been omitted. Sometimes, this omission is poignant, as in J. Alfred Prufrock’s lament “I grow old...I grow old…” which invites the reader to imagine what has happened to the him in the spaces between him growing old. Sometimes, it is simply a placeholder, as happens when a fellow messager is typing on the other end of the line. (Personally, my favorite example of the ellipsis is Seinfeld’s infamous “yada yada yada,” but I digress.)

But where did the ellipsis come from and how did it end up being so unusual? The Guardian’s article on the history of the ellipsis draws on Anne Toner’s fascinating book Ellipsis in English Literature: Signs of Omission to explore ellipses all the way back to the drama of the 16th century. Both the article and the book do an excellent job of analyzing these earliest print records of the modern ellipsis.

But that story may not be the whole story, for the dot dot dot of an ellipsis was no stranger to English texts before the plays of Shakespeare and Jonson. It might have just been serving a slightly different function.

In medieval manuscripts, we find a mark—sometimes called subpuncting or underdotting—that is used to indicate the omission of a word or phrase, usually when that word or phrase has been copied erroneously. This omission mark involves placing a series of dots under the word that is to be omitted. The image below shows an erroneous word, blotted out and subpuncted:

The British Library Board, Harley MS 6258 fol. 45r
 A scholar of medieval manuscripts, David Wakelin, conducted a study on how popular various methods of omission and correction were based on a sample of 9,000 manuscripts at the Huntington Library. He found that “crossing out, subpuncting, or erasure” accounted for 25% of the corrections he found. He does not provide a percentage of subpuncting alone, but it does occur in a variety of manuscripts, particularly those in the 14th and 15th centuries. Wakelin notes that subpuncting begins to die out in the early 16th century, and Toner picks up on the rise of the ellipsis in the late 16th century.
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Source: Slate Magazine (blog)


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