Punctuation is a part of our everyday lives. As language evolves and mutates, we have held on to some of these symbols and dispensed with others. They have survived from handwritten texts to typewriters and computer keyboards and now thrive on the stage of international digital communication.
While punctuation is above all practical, the functions of some ligatures have been re-appropriated to become a vital part of our online communications – not merely an aid to our understanding of the text. These symbols have come to enrich and enhance our cyber-language. Here are a few:
In 1971, a programmer named Ray Tomlinson who worked at BBN Technologies was trying to figure out how to send a message through the ARPANET network, a forerunner of the Internet, to a user at another computer. He had the framework in place; all he needed was a way of separating the person’s name from the name of their computer in an email address. He looked down at his Teletype Model 33 ASR keyboard and a symbol caught his eye: @. The ‘at sign’ was an underused and practically obsolete accounting symbol. Most importantly it was not a character that would appear in a person’s name and it was available on all computer keyboards. He typed in user@host, pressed send and the first email was sent. It was a major breakthrough for Tomlinson and has changed the lives of billions of people including giving that mutable @ sign a new lease of life. It would enjoy a second renaissance when it was included in the format for Twitter handles.
The ‘at sign’ was an underused and practically obsolete accounting symbol. Most importantly, it was not a character that would appear in a person’s name and it was available on all computer keyboards. He typed in user@host and pressed ‘send’. The first email was sent. It was a major breakthrough for Tomlinson, giving that mutable @ a new lease of life. It would enjoy a second renaissance when it was included in the format for Twitter handles.
The origins of @ are unclear: it can be found in some sixth and seventh-century manuscripts where it is used by monks as shorthand. It can subsequently be seen in the Venetian trade in the 16th century to mean “at a rate of” e.g. 12 eggs @ €1. It also appears in a letter from a Florentine merchant, Francesco Lapi, in 1536 to denote a unit of wine.
Over the years, the symbol has created a rich folklore for itself. In Germany, it is known as the “monkey’s tail”. In Russia, it is a dog; in Italy, it is a snail; best of all, in Finland, it is the “sign of the meow” due to its resemblance to a curled up cat.
Ray Tomlinson took a pre-existing symbol and imbued it with new meaning and new function and elevated its purpose. Now more than a billion people type @ every day. When he died on the 6th March 2016, Gmail tweeted: Thank you, Ray Tomlinson, for inventing email and putting the @ sign on the map. #RIP.
Most recently this delicate ligature has moved offline and become part of the movement for gender neutrality in languages: Latin@. Instead of the gender-specific “los amigos” or “las amigas” there has been a push towards the neutral l@s amig@s.
@ has now reached such cultural importance that the Museum of Modern Art in New York has acquired it for its architecture and design collection.
This symbol is called a lot of different things – the pound sign, hash, number mark, octothorpe – and has existed since Roman times when it denoted a “pound in weight”. When the telephone keypad was first produced in 1968 the # was included along with the asterisk. (Initially alpha and beta were to be the two symbols included – how different things would have been if they had.) # was a bit of a mystery: an underused symbol. Then came Twitter. On the 23rd of August 2007 Chris Messina, an open source advocate, tweeted: How do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?
Initially, the Twitter hierarchy was resistant. Ev Williams, co-founder of Twitter, thought the idea was too nerdy and the company’s idea was to group tweets together through the use of algorithms. However, the ease of use of the hashtag fuelled its popularity and became the only way to effectively group tweets. Hashtags soon blossomed outside of Twitter: they are used on Facebook, Instagram, even television programmes promote them to start online conversations. They encourage individuals thousands of miles apart, people who have never met, to conduct group conversations on subjects that range from the political to discussions on television shows and social issues e.g. #whyistayed. Hashtags have also moved on from their purely functional origins and have become part of the text itself – they can be humorous or sarcastic and provide emotional or tonal context.
The slash was invented in the 12th century by the Italian scholar Boncompagno da Signa to signify a short pause. Later this upright virgule would be transformed into a comma. It has since been used in mathematics, proofreading, poetry, music, dates – the list goes on.
In the mid-nineties, the slash became an everlasting part of Internet infrastructure when Tim Berners-Lee decided that http:// would be the root for all web addresses while subsequent levels in the same address would be separated by a single slash e.g. https://thecoven.me/about/. It is also used extensively on Reddit, where it helps form the name of subreddits.
The expanse of the Internet has increased our use of symbols for various purposes, but its limits encourage their use too. Twitter with its 140 character limit has increased usage of the two millennia old ‘&’ when space is an imperative.
Elsewhere, as a quick nod of agreement +1 or even a simple caret “^” have replaced the plaintive “me too”.
When Google launched its own social media network to rival Facebook, it included a plus sign in the name and encouraged users to use + in the same way that @ is used in Twitter. And where Facebook has a like button, Google has +1.
It can be difficult to convey tone in written communications especially in those web-based places which confine our character usage. A common solution is the use of the asterisk *cough* *splutter* *sigh*. The bounding asterisk comes in a number of forms. It is used as emphasis, perhaps where italics would have used previously e.g. what I *really* meant was… It is also used to sum up a mood or behaviour in as few words as possible e.g. *cries*. The use of the bounding asterisk predates the Internet going back possibly to the turn of the century and was routinely used in the comic strip Peanuts from the 1950s. Here it was used as a stage direction and this use has transferred to social media: the asterisks encase a phrase which provides a performative element to the text e.g. *throws glitter* *shudders*.
The use of the bounding asterisk predates the Internet, possibly going back to the turn of the century. It was routinely used in Peanuts comic strips from the 1950s on; there, it was used as a stage direction. This use has transferred to social media: the asterisks encase a phrase which provides a performative element to the text e.g. *throws glitter* *shudders*.
The use of punctuation marks, letters and numbers to form pictures predates the Internet but the form has played a significant role in communication since the widespread adoption of social media platforms. There is evidence of the use of punctuation marks to form faces dating to the mid-1880s, but pictographic language such as hieroglyphs goes back as far as 3,300 BCE. Computer scientist Scott Fahlman at Carnegie Mellon University is credited with being the first person to use the smiley emoticon. He realised that people were struggling to convey tone on his university’s message board so, in order to distinguish whether something was serious or said in jest, he suggested the use of two images formed from symbols: 🙂 and 😦
Emoticons have progressed from these simple images to more complex forms e.g. //0-0\\ (John Lennon), (╯°□°）╯︵ ┻━┻ (table flipping).
The linguist Tyler Schnoebelen has published a number of papers on how language is used on social media. He found that our use of emoticons varies by age, gender, geography and class just in the same way these factors affect our spoken accents. Groups of people who communicate together online a lot fall into a similar pattern as regards the emoticons they use – in essence, creating their own slang. Similar to the bounding asterisks, emoticons play an important role in providing tone and emotion to written language.
Obituaries: gone and also forgotten
Not all punctuation marks have made it in the Internet age. In fact, some didn’t even make it that far:
¢: The cent sign did not survive the transition from typewriters to computer keyboards instead being replaced by the caret.
‽: Part question mark, part exclamation point, the interrobang was faddy in the 60s but failed to have any lasting effect.
⸮: the percontation point or the rhetorical question mark was invented by the English printer Henry Denham in the 1580s but its use died out in the 1600s. Also used as an irony mark.
Exclamation comma, question comma: patented in the early 90s, now extinct.