Origins of the semicolon?

So where did the semicolon actually come from? I was writing a small article on the character for my new pet project and I realised that it’s not that clear.

If you try googling, you will most likely find the answer given in Wikipedia or a copy of that article. They are claiming that it was Aldus Manutius who first used the semicolon in the way we are using it. The argument is based on a book on punctuation by Lynne Truss. I haven’t read the book, but I’ve gathered that she says that the mark surfaces in 1494. But I’m not going to believe a journalist right away on matters of typographic history. With my experience from newspaper houses, I tend to be a little suspicious of them…

Brinhurst1 mentions that the roots of the semicolon can be found in the scribal practice of manuscripts. But that is a pretty vague comment. Does he mean that the roots of using punctuation similarly to our ways lies in the manuscripts? Or does he mean that the graphical mark was invented back then?

So, let’s take a look at the book Epigrammaton that was printed in 1501 by Aldus Manutius, set in Griffo’s famous italic (see detail below). It seems that in this book, printed seven years after the semicolon is supposed to emerge, Aldus is using it as a way of indicating abbreviations.

The text on first two lines says (from The Latin Library):

Viuebant laceri membris stillantibus artus,
inque omni nusquam corpore corpus erat.

This kind of abbreviations were normal in medieval manuscripts. So here it would seem that Aldus is following those traditions.

Going through the works of Aldus online reveals that it was Bembo’s book De Aetna where the first printed semicolon appeared in 1494. But it seems that Aldus does not just come up with this new way of puctuating text and start using it from then on. The character operates both as a punctuation and a sign of abbreviation. But where did Aldus get the character? And when does it loose the abbreviation function?

Canadian Associate Professor of English, Stephen Reimer has a pretty extensive website on manuscript studies. According to him there were several characters that were used in manuscripts for abbreviations, including an inverted semicolon and some marks that were similar to it. He claims that the modern use of the semicolon was invented in the late 16th century.

This is getting interesting. I need to wake up and get to the library. What a nice way to start a week, eh?

  1. Bringhurst, R. (2002/1992) The Elements of Typographic Style. 2.5 edition. Hartley & Marks, Vancouver. p. 317