Exploring cross-signification, shifting meaning & punctuational appropriation in a digital age
This project aims to demonstrate the power that something as small as a punctuation mark has to reveal big stories about how communication is changing. The investigation began by identifying five key uses of ~ (the tilde), exploring the diverse themes and histories surrounding these meanings.
A method of simultaneous writing and image-making was used to form ideas, developing a series of short essays following the journey of ~ through time, changing technologies and shifting modes of communication. Questions are asked about where we are going with our manners of digital communication, and what we want from them in the near future. We are all acutely aware of the exponential growth in ever-faster global communication, and that it is having an impact on how we connect with people. Zooming in on a small part of this allows for the discussion of a subject that might otherwise be too large to grasp; punctuation use is a microcosm for language change in general.
The ~ was chosen for this project because it is a familiar presence on our keyboards yet many feel unsure what it is for. Not having as fixed a meaning as, say, the question mark frees ~ up to be used in many ways, be that in mathematics, programming or joking around on twitter. What a punctuation mark means to people is as subject to change over time as any other aspect of language.1 An important question is whether the shape of the mark affects what it signifies, and to explore this the semiotic theories of Roland Barthes2 were applied to the graphic shape ~, while thinking-through-making experiments such as playing with scale, context and dimensionality were conducted. Many writers over the years have personified punctuation marks,3 seeing human characteristics in them, and this project questions whether there is some character about the shape ~ that suits it to certain uses.
The outcome of this project is a book that uses a concertina shape to demonstrate that shape and meaning are often two sides of the same coin. The series of essays that explore five key meanings of ~ are arranged along a timeline of sorts, using the long continuous strip of the book’s pages to highlight the shift in meaning over time, and the way that ~ is made available on our keyboards without a fixed use has resulted in a multiplicity of uses more recently. The other side of the book meditates on the nature of waviness, provoking the reader into considering the relationship between shape and signification. This site is intended to act as a digital version of this outcome. Comments, questions and images of tildes spotted in the wild are very welcome: @punctuationwave on twitter.
Louise Evans is a London-based graphic designer whose interest lies in the place where history, linguistics and social behaviours meet. Her practice revolves around typography and the formal space of the printed page. Having explored writing as a tool for the first time in this, her major research project for a Masters degree in Graphic Media Design at LCC, she hopes to integrate it further into her practice in future while exploring similar themes. A full exploration of the themes governing this project can be downloaded and read here.
Many thanks to Joseph Bernstein, Bryony Quinn, Cathy Gale, Keith Houston and all who helped with, encouraged & inspired this project.
1: For instance, it was once common practice in medieval England to use the virgule, or forward slash /, in the way that we now use a full stop.
2: French literary theorist and critic Roland Barthes formed several theories and terms pertaining to semiotics – the study of signs or ‘meaning-making’ – that were useful in this project. In his essay ‘The Rhetoric of the Image’ he set out a system for decoding the many layered ways that the text and image of an advertisement signal meaning to us. See also here.
3: ‘An exclamation mark looks like an index finger raised in warning; a question mark looks like a flashing light or the blink of an eye … with self-satisfied peasant cunning, German quotation marks << >> lick their lips’ – Theodor Adorno, Punctuation Marks, 1956