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10.5: The Reader

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  • Concern for any readership is a further aspect worth considering. It is something that is scarcely apparent in the stoichedon system, which had a broad vogue in the 5th and 4th centuries bc. I note an intriguing exception which suggests that Athenian public documents could be deliberately inscribed in a slightly less severe manner: there is a tendency in financial texts to break the line not after the required x letters, but at the end of a syllable closest to the xth letter. More generally, however, in the course of time lettering tends to get smaller and in official texts administrative jargon more profuse. The stoichedon system also seems to have sounded the death knell of the use of interpuncts in formal texts. Greek and Latin texts are notorious for not having word division (not totally true, but a safe general statement).

    Interpuncts were used in the Near East and in the Bronze Age Greek syllabic script. They do occur in alphabetic texts, but with no great regularity (Morpurgo-Davies 1987: especially 270– 271, for an overview). Nestor’s cup (Figure 8) in fact is one of the more striking examples where punctuation is used on a generous scale. I have noted that interpuncts, usually two or three dots, appear in roughly one in 50 informal texts of the 6th to 5th centuries at Greek sites where our corpus is large enough to bear such statistical analysis. Its most consistent use is in texts of the archaic period in Athens (Lang 1976; 1990; Threatte 1980: 73–84; and my own counts), though figures vary substantially from one type of text to another: perhaps one in 15 for painted texts on pots, one in 60 for graffiti on pots, including the political ostraka, mostly from the 480s, some one in five for sepulchral stone texts, but two in three for dedicatory texts inscribed in stone. An overall explanation is hard to find, though there may be a hint that interpuncts were fairly widely used in the early period in brush and ink writing on perishable materials. The most striking example is in the highly ornate and early stoichedon text, also of the 480s, known as the Hekatompedon decree (Figure 13), where the difficulties of adapting punctuation to stoichedon are clearly demonstrated — squeezed in or taking up a complete letter space (stoichos). In later Greek stone texts its use is very largely confined to hiving off numerals or limiting abbreviations. Outside the Greek world variety in its usage is apparent. In Etruscan about one in 25 of the 317 early texts in the corpus united by Bagnasco Gianni (1996) have (a variety of) interpuncts, although usage is more considerable in the classical period and after. On the other hand no interpunct appears in the 400 or so mainly late archaic and classical texts from Elymian Segesta (Agostiniani 1977).

    One underlying factor that may explain lack of punctuation may lie in the habit of tracing texts physically letter by letter in the reading process (a word used for reading, ananemo, has the root meaning “to pick up”); the boustrophedon form of writing facilitated this process by not requiring the reader to go back to start a new line. The fact that the two earliest Greek texts preserved which have more than one line, the Nestor cup and its twin from Eretria (Johnston and Andreiomenou 1989), are not written boustrophedon but in lines running right to left may demonstrate a preoccupation with marking the separate lines, a preference not shown in other more or less contemporary verse texts. I also have a need to apologise for wrongly introducing into the literature a further aid to the reader, in the form of guidelines between which the letters were cut, meandering over the stones covering the late Mycenaean underground gallery at Tiryns (Jeffery 1990: 429; Figure 14); the cultic texts are randomly distributed, but the guidelines given in the original drawings in the publication of the material (Verdelis et al. 1975) were the responsibility not of the inscribers, but of the editors, who wished to facilitate the task of the modern reader.