A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 100: hitting the century

I never meant for the numbering of these posts to have any significance other than to tell them apart, but it’s still gratifying to have hit the century after (checks notes) a mere eleven years and six-ish months. For reference, here’s the first ever miscellany post, published way back in November 2011. Amusingly, it is unnumbered. Who’d have thought I’d have needed more than a single post to tie up some loose ends?

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading these posts as much as I’ve enjoyed putting them together, and so, with that said, on with the show and long may they continue.

First, via the ever-reliable Language Hat, comes news that punctuation has been found to be “mathematical”. Of course, we’ve discovered here at Shady Characters that the distribution of the occurrence of punctuation marks in English appears to obey an inverse power law (that is, the most common mark, the comma, occurs about twice as frequently as the full stop, which occurs about twice as frequently as the double quotation mark, and so on), but the authors of “Universal versus system-specific features of punctuation usage patterns in major Western languages” have been much more rigorous in defining how punctuation occurs in different languages.

In their paper, Stanisz et al find that the distances between consecutive punctuation marks follows the Weibull distribution — a curve sometimes used to model time between failures or mortality rates — and that all of the languages examined had similar distributions describing the occurrence and ordering of different marks. That’s an oversimplification (and, given I don’t have access to the paper itself, a necessary one) but it’s an interesting avenue of research nonetheless. Readers with institutional Elsevier subscriptions should feel free to add more in the comments.

Elsewhere, Steven Heller, esteemed design critic and man of impeccable taste,* recounts the story of the New York Times’ $600 full stop. I won’t spoil his short, sweet story, so head over to Print Mag to read the whole thing.

In writing The Book, I tried to be as rigorous as I could in describing the various different materials, techniques, and design elements that went into the books we have made over the millennia. That said, it’s always a treat to discover a piece that echoes one’s own work but which goes that much deeper. For Lapham’s Quarterly, Bruce Holsinger writes on the history of parchment, and his article is an excellent read. But then maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, since Holsinger is the Linden Kent Memorial Professor of English at the University of Virginia, the editor of the journal New Literary History, and, most apposite, the author of On Parchment: Animals, Archives, and the Making of Culture from Herodotus to the Digital Age, as published by Yale University. Go ahead, have a read; it’s well worth your time.

Lastly, Scientific American reports on the accession to the Unicode Standard of a new set of numerals. The so-called Kaktovik numerals were invented some thirty years ago by the Alaskan Inuit schoolchildren of the village of the same name, and they codified the counting scheme used in the spoken Iñupiaq language. What’s interesting here is that the Unicode Consortium is famously strict about admitting new characters to the Unicode standard, but the Kaktovik numerals represent a rare and happy success story — the creation and admission of a whole new set of numerals that both broadens the standard’s reach and goes some way to righting historical wrongs in the treatment of the Alaskan Inuit. Unicode doesn’t have exactly a perfect record when it comes to representing minority groups, so it’s gratifying to see the consortium doing the right thing here. More at Scientific American!

Heller is, of course, the source of a very generous quote regarding The Book, as seen elsewhere here at shadycharacters.co.uk

5 comments on “Miscellany № 100: hitting the century

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Fantastic! Thanks. I didn’t search thoroughly enough, it seems.

  1. Comment posted by Brian Inglis on

    Kaktovik nu­mer­als are available, as are most new glyphs, often first in GNU Unifont, an attempt to quickly provide access to new characters, based on bitmaps rendered in modern font formats, suitable for use as a fallback font, to provide access to a complete repertoire of assigned Unicode characters. See https://unifoundry.com/unifont/index.html under Font Downloads:





    (The latter has many unofficial, preliminary, artificial, or research alphabet glyphs unofficially registered to use the “Private Use Areas” scattered across the Unicode Supplementary Multilingual Planes.)

  2. Comment posted by ktschwarz on

    In the bit about the “$600 full stop” that you link, Steven Heller writes: “… the diamond period had been gone from the newspaper’s nameplate since 1961, when I was 11 years old. Even today I recall the missing full stop. It had been part of the name for over 100 years. Until one day, it was gone …”

    OK, I had to know, what day was it gone? Turns out, Heller’s memory is playing tricks on him: it was Feb. 21, 1967 — not 1961 (I’d take it for a simple typo, but then he adds “when I was 11 years old” and the image of a front page from 1961). Heller said it was 1967 in his own memorial to Ed Benguiat, “The Benguiat Period”, linked at the bottom of the blog, which links in turn to a reminiscence of the redesign by the Times itself.

    Lou Silverstein’s “$600 a year” has also grown in the retelling: the Times article, presumably based on the original coverage, quotes the price as $41.28, not that I believe that was meant any more seriously than the letters calling the redesign “performing plastic surgery on Helen of Troy.” Tales do grow in the telling, and perhaps Silverstein was adjusting for inflation!

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Fantastic details here! Thanks for the detective work.

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