The ability to write, hence to preserve and share arbitrary words and thoughts, was one of the most important breakthroughs in the history of mankind. It laid the technological basis for what we perceive today as culture, science and, in good part, economy. Nonetheless, writing can encompass much more than just words, and this is an integral, but often overlooked part of it. Until very recently, writing was necessarily bound to the physical medium on which it was written or into which it was inscribed. The physicality of the medium interacted with and often enhanced the purely textual message. These features, which go beyond the encoding of words, are the secondary characteristics of writing systems. They include, but are not limited to typography, and often serve, consciously or not, the transmission of additional messages beyond the purely textual content.If the study of writing itself is still largely in its infancy, this is even more true for the study of secondary characteristics, which is an integral part of grammatology. Beginning with a taxonomy of these secondary characteristics, this article looks in more detail at two non-typographical characteristics, namely ordering and punctuation. This short sketch of a cultural history of ordering and punctuation begins with the role of ordering in the initial invention of writing over its use across the millennia. It ends with the contemporary use of special punctuation marks to encode emotions.

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Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision
Tijdschrift voor Mediageschiedenis

Küster, Marc Wilhelm. (2016). Writing Beyond the Letter. Tijdschrift voor Mediageschiedenis, 19(2), 1–17. doi:10.18146/2213-7653.2016.262