Wow! Cutting Letters!


When I ran into this article on the Boston Globe website by Christopher Muther that talks about how the exclamation point has proliferated in electronic messaging I immediately thought, “Wow! Cutting Letters!” 

To explain it I’ll have to start with Muther’s article:

“Without an omnipresent exclamation point, my electronic communication sounded as if it was written by a certain curmudgeonly and crusty green muppet who resides in a trash can.”

I think that it is safe to say everyone has had this experience. With texting now being a big part of how we communicate, written messaging has taken on a bigger role in our daily lives, and because of it we probably are a bit more conscious of how our electronic messaging language needs mood markers to convey the tone and inflection of speech. It is only natural that, as the more and more we use this new medium of communication, our ears would start to listen for these markers.

“ ‘I’ll see you at the conference,’ is a simple statement of fact,” they wrote. “ ‘I’ll see you at the conference!’ lets your fellow conferee know that you’re excited and pleased about the event.”

If you compare the tone between the two statements above, the first one without the exclamation point seems a bit dark because dead panning is the way we scoff or threaten someone.  As noted, the second example shows how the exclamation point expresses that the speaker has positive emotions towards the conference.  Depending at what gets written before or after this statement, it could also include being positive about meeting the fellow conferee as well.

These examples show how the exclamation point does more than just indicate that the speaker has emotion about something, it shows that the speaker is using it to express a mood to the reader. Having lost the ability to create emotional meaning through tone of voice or facial gestures, because we aren’t engaged in person to person speech anymore, so as writers of our own conversation we are using the exclamation point as a marker for expression. And as readers we expect them to be there as well.

““In e-mail, I think that exclamation points serve some useful functions, because they can convey extra meaning in brief messages,” says Jean Berko Gleason, a Boston University psycholinguist. “They can mitigate the brusqueness of a brief reply by indicating the writer’s enthusiasm, sincerity, surprise ­— it all depends on the situation.””

To be able to indicate different emotions with punctuation is something that the Japanese have long considered the spoken particles that are “cutting letters” of haiku as doing. This is a quote taken from a book 名句に学ぶ俳句の骨法 (Learning the Knack of It From Famous Haiku) which is a two book set where a group of haiku writers talk about all aspects of haiku and go into the nuts and bolts of how and why famous haiku work as poetry. I’d say it is a middle level book for those who are looking for ways to improve their own haiku. Since it goes into details about how haiku works as a language, and since Japanese is my second language, it was an influential book for me because it simply and clearly explained most everything about the genre.

切字の役目ですがかたちを整えるということとともに詠嘆、感動、余情を写え、一句に広がりや情趣がでてきて、暗示性が加わり、しかも調べを整えることができるというわけで、いろいろな意味で出てきて (名句に学ぶ俳句の骨法 (下} pg.10 )

A rough translation that tries to keep the flair of the original:

“The role of a “cutting letter” is to arrange the shape (of haiku) as well as bring a sense of admiration, a deep emotion, and express deep feelings to bring out the expanse and elegance in a haiku and add to its suggestive qualities. Besides this, it can shape the melody and for these reasons it adds a variety of meanings”

Take away the statements in the above about influencing the shape and melody and we are left with a definition that is very similar to what Gleason says about how an exclamation point conveys “extra meaning in brief messages” and how, depending on the situation, the use of one can express emotions that “expand” and add “elegance” to what we’ve written. This is what the difference between “ I’ll see you at the conference,” and “ I’ll see you at the conference!” is.

This is not to say that we are writing “a haiku” in our electronic messaging, or that we are achieving a deep “poetic elegance” when we use an exclamation point, but it should lead one to seriously reconsider the idea from many people, both in Japan and those interested in haiku outside of Japan, that the “cutting words” themselves are something that are untranslatable from the Japanese. The truth is we are using one of them, the exclamation point, daily to create the same emotional tone as they do.

“Let me give you an answer, and hopefully you’ll feel less offended by the exclamation point. People are using the written word in a much more conversational manner,” Boroditsky says. “What people do with written language is that they adapt it to meet their needs.”

The adoption that has occurred in text messaging is that with the need to replace the verbal tone and facial gestures that comes along with face to face conversation we have to start to rely more on punctuation to express ourselves. Some might see that as a dumbing down of the language, but I tend to see it simply as a natural extension of keeping our communication lines open. After all, language, and poetry, does change.

To explore more about how punctuation can work in haiku, let’s take a look at the opening of Basho’s most famous haiku:

Furuike ya

The old pond!

How about if we take the exclamation out:

The old pond.

I think it is pretty easy to understand why he used an exclamation point here. He took the old pond out of the realm of just being a cold fact and with the lilt expressed by the exclamation he has set up a musical tempo to build off of in the rest of the haiku as well.

How about the dash, which is what has been the conventional way to write the break in English:

The old pond —

The bar shows that writer is thinking about something, but what it is we can’t be sure of because it shows no emotion. And since the dash flattens out the musical inflection of the line, the writer can only write in a declarative tone after it. So it is obvious that the dash simply does not cut it as the sole representation of the exclamative “cutting words” as translators in the past have presented it as.

Let’s take a look at no capital letters and no punctuation:

the old pond

There isn’t much difference between this and the version with the period above. It’s hard to see how this could lead into anything but a flat declarative tone. So between  no punctuation and the dash, the space where the “cut” in English has mainly lived for the past 100 years, it’s easy to understand how the language in haiku has always been devoid of diction and sounds all alike. There isn’t anything around the break for the writer to build sound off of.

Let’s check how other punctuation marks work:

The old pond,

Gives the sense that the writer is going to attach an thought to the image.

The old pond…….

Deepens the sense of what the writer is thinking about, and the pause adds a sense of mystery to the image.

The old pond;

Gives the expectation that there will be an juxtaposition or some other thought that plays off the image.

The old pond:

The expectation of something that will be added to expand the writers thinking about the image.

And in all we see five different musical angles off of which to work prosody from.

So, when it comes to prosody and spacing, we can use punctuation in haiku pretty much the same way as the Japanese do. Of course, there are those who will argue, “But, I don’t want to write like the Japanese!” But they are missing the point that it isn’t about using their language, it actually is about using the all the abilities in your own language to create lasting poetry. 

Yes, using correct punctuation is in the realm of poetic license and the poet always doesn’t have to use it, but that doesn’t mean you should summarily ignore it. Especially if you want to build a a poetic diction and escape from always writing in a flat descriptive tone. You would think that after a hundred years of it that people who write haiku would want to move on to something more besides just that. 



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