Prior to the invention of the printing press in 1452 there was almost no punctuation in the English language.
There was no need for it. The langauge was a spoken language, as were all languages, and when it was written down, it was written as a transcription of speaking.
A spoken language is filled with all kinds of clues as to what the intent of the speaker is. When one’s voice goes up at the end of a sentence, it indicates a question. We take pauses for emphasis, or to separate ideas.
The written word prior to 1452 did not include these clues, even to the exclusion of periods. The number of texts were few, and generally well known to the reader. The bible, for example. They were spoken words and the written part was often little more than a reminder of what the spoken words should be.
Prior to the printing press, one depended upon memory – rote memorization. Education and memorization were considered as one in the same. The Bible tells us that Solomon was a wise man because he had memorized 2,000 proverbs. This was wisdom in antiquity.
Since antiquity, writing had been little more than a mnemonic. A device for jogging the memory.
Neither written Hebrew nor Arabic have vowels. There are vowling systems that can be appended to written Hebrew or Arabic, but generally with either of these ancient langauges, one must know the word they are reading in order to read it.
The invention of the printing press gave rise to a kind of mass production of writing, and in doing so, shifted the foundations of writing – indeed, the very definition of writing – from a transcription of spoken langauge to a grammar that was entirely graphocentric. It was a fundamental difference and it took a long time to get there.
Many years ago (many), I had an old girlfriend who had learnt English (her fifth language) not from a langauge school or courses, but by reading it. As a result, interestingly, she was often unable to differentiate between written English and spoken English. There is a difference, as there is in all languages. From time to time she would say strange sounding things. She once commented that her father, upon learning he had cancer, was faced with ‘an ineluctable choice’. One generally does not use the world ineluctable in spoken English, but she had learnt it by reading and could not differentiate between the two.
Now, what does this have to do with video? (you may ask).
Until now, video has been a bit like writing before the printing press.
Like pre-Gutenbergian text, it was in the hands of a very few ‘priests’ who used it sparingly, and when they did, it was largely representative of the more common written text.
When TV shows are crafted in an edit, the script is often ‘written’ apart from the video. It is written on a piece of paper. It is then ‘voiced’ in a recording booth, again far from the video. A narrator or talent sits in a record booth and goes “3….2…1…. and then reads a line of text or a few lines”.
Later, those lines will be married to the pictures (which were generally shot by someone else), in an edit suite.
What appears on screen is stiled, and disconnected from any kind of passion or good story telling.
I watched 60 Minutes tonight and you can see how the ‘script’ exists largely free of the video. It’s a waste of a powerful medium.
The printing press gave rise to punctuation because as the masses embraced story-telling through text alone, it became necessary to create a grammar that could really leverage off what writing and print were capable of – as opposed to being a vehicle to mimic speech.
Now, video is just entering the place where the printing press was 500 years ago. It is passing from the priesthood into the hands of the masses. And they are creating massive amounts of content. Daily.
At the same time, we now begin to grapple with the need for a new kind of grammar which is purely video (as opposed to written and recorded tracks married to pictures somewhere else). It took 150 years for commas to appear. The use of periods or full stops is generally credited to Aldus Manutius in his Life of Plato published (and printed) in 1513.
Today, we see the use of the now ubiquitous @ as a punctuation marker that tells us that we are in cyberspace, (as opposed to when to take a pause).
For video, we have, like the earliest writers, simply used the medium to ape filmmaking and writing. But video can be much more powerful. To do so, it has to acquire its own grammar – its own punctuation.
We can start by removing the affectations of writing – beginnig with what we call ‘writing for broadcast’ – the pretentious, overblown, bloviated TV talk of the 1950s. Watching 60 MInutes again, and listening to the vastly over-written scripts it occurs to me that no one, no one talks like this. It is speechmaking married to pictures.
Our own video grammar should reflect what the medium does best – tell stories in pictures and sound, in an immediate and intimate way.
Then we can progress further by removing the ‘stand up’. We don’t need a movie about what a reporter does for a living.
Video can be a remarkably powerful medium – as print became, once it was freed to find its own voice. This is what we can now do for video.