How do you recognize a phenomenon that gives no visible trace? Miners working deep under the earth have long been aware that lethal gases they can neither see nor smell might spell sudden death. Their solution? The hapless canary. For if the caged bird they brought along into the mine succumbed to the silent killer, the miners knew to evacuate immediately. Only by the aftermath—the canary’s demise—was the presence of danger established.
Like gases in mines, changes in language are often difficult to document. While the aftermath of language change is less dramatic, language change (including shifts in the relationship between forms of language) can profoundly impact the tools available for human communication and our assumptions about how these tools should be used. What does punctuation have to do with shifting balances between speech and writing in the history of English? Punctuation is the canary.
Punctuation tools such as commas, semicolons, and capitalization are obviously devices for adding clarity to writing. Yet punctuation also reveals how writers view the balance between spoken and written language. To oversimplify, in England, punctuation marks initially indicated pauses in Latin texts meant to be read aloud, following earlier Roman rhetorical usage. By the mid-eighteenth century, this role had partly shifted, with punctuation also indicating grammatical relationships expressed in writing. However, during the twentieth century, the predominant uses of punctuation once again changed. Punctuation has become increasingly rhetorical in character, though the nature of this rhetorical function differs sharply from its earlier role in orally re-presenting written texts.