We write a little history every day

The language and alphabet of the Canaanites can be dated back 3,700 years. It was once the language of Israel, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. It was used to create Egyptian documents, the Amarna letters that were written in Akkadian, and in the Hebrew Bible.

So, a recent discovery of a fragment of elephant tusk, bearing the faded inscription of 17 Canaanite letters and 7 words, that could be carbon dated back to 1700 BC, sparked immense interest among historians and biblical scholars alike.

The bone fragment can be seen below – a window into an ancient civilization, a glimpse into the minds and lives of that archaic wisdom.

Scholars pored over the symbols and analyzed the meanings, looked for hidden insights into the mysteries of those revered times.

In this remarkable discovery, researchers finally managed to translate the first sentences of this ancient language, a language where almost no complete sentences now exist.

“This is the first sentence ever found in the Canaanite language in Israel,” said Professor Yosef Garfinkel, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “This is a landmark in the history of the human ability to write,” he added.

And what did it reveal of the lives of those ancient peoples?

Beard lice. The Canaanites had beard lice. Well, the men anyway—who am I to say if, or where the women had lice?

Male human head louse, Pediculus humanus capitis.

The inscription is on a beard comb and the words spell out “”May this tusk root out the lice of the beard!”

It just goes to show that not all that gets passed down in the written word from those older times is necessarily all mighty revelation. Neither is the seemingly mundane without value.

Lachish, were the comb was discovered was a major Canaanite city state, and the second most important city in Judah, the biblical kingdom. To date, 10 Canaanite inscriptions have been found in Lachish, more than at any other site in Israel – but until now never in a full sentence. The word structure give scholars more insight into the now dead language of that ancient tribe than they ever had before. And of course the knowledge that head lice were a real bitchy itchy of a problem, even for those affluent enough to own inscribed pieces of elephant tusk.

You can read some of my, soon to be rendered historical words, by following the link below. I guarantee all other blog posts and books to be almost 85% lice free.


An interrobang, or a dog’s cock‽

It’s been quite a week in sleepy Somerset. I thought I had finished my latest WIP. It topped out at around 75,000 words. I closed it down for a few days thinking I was ready for a round of submissions to a literary agent or three. When I opened it back up I ended writing another 8,000 words, so now I have to go back to editing!

The title of this week’s blog isn’t edgy and controversial for no good reason—although I am certainly not above a bit of good old fashioned Anglo Saxon swearing, they are, after all, just words, and they are kind of my stock in trade these days. The title is germane to this week’s topic—punctuation.

Isn’t it funny how as a writers we use common forms of punctuation without considering why in fact they exist in the forms that they do.

Take the exclamation mark. Its origins are believed to be Latin. The most likely theory is that in Latin the exclamation of joy was ‘io‘. In Latin the i was written above the o and all letters were capitalized. Written in this way it looks a lot like an exclamation point. Makes sense.

With the advent of email and subsequently social media, the use of the exclamation mark has become rather ubiquitous. They can be found liberally scattered throughout every facebook post and Twitter tweet and often appear nested, presumably to demonstrate how truly brimming with joy the tweeter believes his/her/their post to be!!!

It wasn’t always the case. For the longest time they were considered the tool of the fool by most in the writing/publishing industry.

F Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes.” Elmore Leonard wrote of exclamation marks: “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” Which means, on average, an exclamation mark every book and a half (makes note to check how many I have used in my current WIP—it’s certainly more than one!).

Prior to the 1970’s the exclamation mark didn’t even appear on typewriter keyboards. Before that, you had to type a period, and then use the backspace to go back and stick an apostrophe above it. When dictating letters to typists people would say “bang” to mark the exclamation point and those crude and roguish workers in the printing industry called them dog’s cocks.

Things change over time of course, although punctuation marks tend to do so slowly. The interrobang was a notable exception. It was invented in the 1960’s by Martin K. Speckter who wanted a way to convey a form of energy added to a question “you are wearing that to Mom’s funeral‽”

Clashing shirt, jacket and tie

As you can see, the interrobang takes the form of a question mark (interro from interrogatio, the Latin for ‘rhetorical question’ or ‘cross-examination’) overlayed with the bang. Could have been worse, it might have been called the interro-dog’s-cock if it had been left down to our printing friends.

Interrobang image

It made its way briefly onto the keyboard of Remington typewrites before falling entirely out of fashion by the time the 1970’s rolled around. But it does still exist, albeit in an informal use, and can be used in addition to the fourteen more formal punctuation marks such as the comma, the period, the ellipsis and the colon, which incidentally used to be called by those pesky printers, the dog’s bollocks, for obvious reasons :—

I hope you enjoyed this weeks blog. Feel free to like and share and follow along for more fascinating,—if mostly useless, facts and updates on current writing projects.

All my books are available on your local Amazon store and always free on Kindle Unlimited.

BTW – if you wish to visit the pub in the featured image, it is a real pub but you will have to get to Toronto to enjoy it.

I hope you really enjoyed the read‽

Did the printed page make us who we are?

I saw a post on someone’s Facebook page that quoted Carl Sagan on the nature of books and knowledge and it made me think.

This is the quote:

The irreplaceable Carl Sagan

For 99 percent of the tenure of humans on earth, nobody could read or write. The great invention had not yet been made. Except for firsthand experience, almost everything we knew was passed on by word of mouth. As in the children’s game “Telephone,” over tens and hundreds of generations, information would slowly be distorted and lost.

Books changed all that. Books, purchasable at low cost, permit us to interrogate the past with high accuracy; to tap the wisdom of our species; to understand the point of view of others, and not just those in power; to contemplate — with the best teachers — the insights, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, drawn from the entire planet and from all of our history. They allow people long dead to talk inside our heads. Books can accompany us everywhere. Books are patient where we are slow to understand, allow us to go over the hard parts as many times as we wish, and are never critical of our lapses.

— Carl Sagan The path to freedom

Thoughts? You certainly wont find me arguing with the esteemed Mr. Sagan btw. But is that all there is to that story? That once man/woman kind discovered the secret of transitioning learning from our individual thoughts, rhymes and songs and instead recording them onto some medium: cave wall, pottery, papyrus, paper, whatever, did that simple act make knowledge accessible?

How old is the written word anyway? An ancient Mesopotamian poem gives the first known story of the invention of writing:

Because the messenger’s mouth was heavy and he couldn’t repeat (the message), the Lord of Kulaba patted some clay and put words on it, like a tablet. Until then, there had been no putting words on clay.

— Sumerian epic poem Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta. c. 1800 BCE.

Bloody hell – so the history of writing dates back to at least 1800 BCE! Of course glyphs and pictographs have been around much longer, we have examples of those that have been dated back to 6600 BCE.

But Sagan’s quote specifically states books, so perhaps the invention of the printing press was at the heart of Sagan’s “great invention”?

So, Gutenberg?

That was Johannes Gutenberg in 1436 of course. He invented a new printing press that used precisely molded printing blocks to create high-quality and consistently identical printed pages. If that wasn’t enough, at the same time he created an oil-based ink that was much more durable than the previously used water-based inks. A true revolution was about to be launched on the world.

Early wooden printing press, depicted in 1568

So in that era we now had the capabilities to create mass, identical copies. Erasmus for example became a best seller. He sold at least 750,000 copies of his works during his lifetime (1469–1536). I might be tempted to kill for those numbers!

And yet, one more element was needed to allow the true, timely and precise sharing of information. It was to come only a few years later, in 1470, when Cologne’s only second printer ever, a man called Arnold Ther Hoernen, printed a book titled “Sermo in festo praesentationis beatissimae Mariae virginis.”

Translated the book title says “The Sermon on the Feast of the Presentation of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary,” but that’s irrelevant. What is important, the one subtle difference that would truly change the world forever? Hoernen unilaterally, amazingly, for the first time ever, after 3270 years of the written word having been in existence, thought “you know what bitches? Today, I’m gonna number these fuckers!” I am paraphrasing slightly.

Amazingly, that first numbered page is still in existence, you can see it in the image below half way down the page and in the right hand margin.

Earliest known book to have page numbers.

Literacy and the emergence of scholarship

Doesn’t seem like something that would rock the world right? But here is the thing, page numbers were revolutionary. They made it easy to quote, cite, and to cross reference — they made accessing, studying, and comparing texts much, much easier.

The printing press meant that the same information would fall on the same pages. That was an undeniable game changer. But the seemingly humble, simple page number allowed tables of contents, and indices to be created. Suddenly one reader could quickly and easily direct another reader to the same precise piece of information they needed to share. Scientific collaboration was made tangible.

Authorship, particularly as it related to scientific papers became more meaningful and profitable. It was suddenly important who had said or written what. This allowed the exact citing of references to become common and a required practice.

This era of mass communication permanently altered the structure of society. Ideas transcended borders, captured the imagination of the masses in the Reformation, and threatened the power of political and religious authorities.

Literacy increased exponentially, threatened the monopoly of the literate elite and with the increasing cultural self-awareness of the European languages, led to the slow but steady fall of Latin as the long held lingua franca.

I do hope you enjoyed this blog post. You can find other musings on seemingly random subjects and updates on my book projects on my website. Follow the blog and sign up for the regularly irregular newsletter.

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Better still, buy a book – they have page numbers and everything 🙂