Punctuation, Intertextuality and the Standardization of English

The section that intrigued me the most about chapter one of the OUMEM begins immediately after the chapter’s introduction- particularly the discussions of punctuation and figurative language in early medieval manuscripts.  In the poem modernly referred to as The Blacksmiths, the speaker narrates the happenings of two blacksmiths at work.  He/she uses onomatopoeias to create the noises of the blacksmiths panting from their work as well as pounding iron- “tik . tak . hic . hac .” and so on (Kerby-Fulton 42).  The scribe uses the periods as an indication of where the reader should stop or pause.  With a pause between each noise, the reader can more realistically imagine the blacksmiths swinging their arms into their air (the pause) before crashing their hammers down into the softened metal (the onomatopoeia).  Simple punctuation was nothing new at this time period; upon a small bit of research I learned that periods (or similar punctuation symbols) could be traced back to ancient Greek and Roman writing- the “periods” signaled when/how long the orator should pause before continuing.  Although punctuation was far from becoming standardized, we see here some of the earliest predecessors to modern English grammar.  The purpose of the periods in this excerpt from The Blacksmiths is to render the poem more intelligible to the reader.  Punctuation essentially serves that exact same function today.

Another interesting point this chapter raises is the presence of idioms in early English manuscripts.  Kerby-Fulton points out two uses of the regional word “goke/goky” to refer to a cuckoo- one of the northern dialect in Chorister; one from the Southwest Midlands dialect by Langland.  She mentions that it is uncertain whether this example of jargon was common throughout different regions or whether it was a “signal of influence” (44).  As many of you guys have already noted on this blog, the concept of intertextuality in a world before printing presses, widespread literacy and the standardization of written English is incredible.  Yet the content of the stories in these manuscripts were likely spread orally as well as through print media.  It’s amazing to think of the pains the people went through to create and spread information and literature.  In the modern world of print and digital media, it’s something we definitely take for granted today.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.