There are inherent problems with digital communication — the emotions that define us as empathic beings are lost somewhere between the pixels. I can’t imagine the amount of relationships and business deals that have gone sour due to a misunderstanding in an email or text. When I receive messages from friends, I’m always asking myself: does this smiling emoticon really mean you are happy? Does this exclamation point mean you are excited or angry? Sometimes, the ambiguity of our electronic communication is too much to handle.
The way we “LOL” and “ROFL” with abandon, it seems our language is doomed to fall apart in its printed form. Fortunately, things might not be as bad as they seem; an article in The Wall Street Journal written by Henry Hitchings reveals that since the invention of the printing press, we’ve constantly invented new punctuation marks in hopes of better communicating the meaning of our words. One of the oldest punctuation marks, the leaf-like Hedera, was first used to indicate a separation between text and commentary. It was laid to rest by the Pilcrow, a sort of backwards “p” that denotes a new paragraph.
Some of our punctuation experiments might be well received if reintroduced today. The mark that seems most suited to contemporary society is the point d’ironie, a backwards question mark created in the 16th century by printer Henry Denham. Detecting irony in emails today is almost impossible — its subtlety is almost entirely dependent on voice inflection and facial expressions.
“How might punctuation now evolve? The dystopian view is that it will vanish,” writes Hitchings. While many of the writing conventions we use today might change or disappear, we need punctuation more than ever. As a greater percentage of our lives exists in a written format — phone calls are now often replaced by text messages — we will require more detailed symbols to convey complex emotions. The forefathers of print built punctuation from nothing; the written word in the Medieval era didn’t contain so much as a comma. So perhaps it’s time to take a lesson from the inventors of print — viva l’interrobang!