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The Role of the Hyphen : Punctuation: One small sign can both divide and unite in the story of world politics.

December 02, 1990|SAUL PETT | Associated Press SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT

EDITOR'S NOTE

What to make of that peril-prone punctuation, the hyphen? It both divides and unites. In the case of the Czecho-Slovak Republic, it did both at the same time. Now the French have chased it, like an unwanted ant, from pique-nique. Ignore the hyphen? Mais non! Take it seriously? Madness. A lingering look at the curious hyphen with a dash (which is different) of wit.

It is smaller than an eyelash and less protective, a single, arbitrary mark in the human search for order. It promises clarity but risks anarchy and, like all efforts to standardize and thus regulate human behavior, it groans under many burdens and cries with painful exceptions. It is used to make war and peace and soothe the pride of nations, brides and banks.

Some of us can't get the hyphen out of our minds.

"Come to terms with this hyphen!" President Vaclev Havel implored the Parliament of the new Czechoslovakia.

But how does one make peace with a tiny, elusive chameleon who appears in half-life but not at halftime; in Italian-American but not in Latin American; in flag-waving but not childbearing; a devious, unpredictable, contrary creature who shows up even in absentia, as in hyphen-less?

For 300 rococo years, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and for three shaky weeks in 1990 it lived again in the name of a descendant.

With Karl Marx fallen on hard times, the Parliament of Czechoslovakia talked about dropping "socialist" from the name of the republic. That emboldened the Slovaks to try to improve their billing. They argued for Czecho-Slovak Republic, thinking the hyphen would let the world know the country is made up of two separate states, 5 million Slovaks in one, 10 million Czechs in the other.

The majority fought back fiercely. Finally, the brave legislators came to a neo-Solomonic decision. It would be the Czechoslovak Federative Republic in the Czech area and the Czecho-Slovak Federative Republic in Slovakia. Madder than ever, unrequited Slovaks took to the streets by the thousands demanding a better name or a completely independent state.

Weak from a hernia operation, President Havel sought to defuse the crisis from his hospital bed. He sent a speech begging his fellow Czechs in Parliament to consider that the hyphen symbolized the hunger of Slovaks for a national identity they were denied for centuries under Hungarian kings and even in 1918 at the birth of the modern nation after World War I.

He said the founding fathers, Thomas Masaryk and Eduard Benes, had a hyphenated, two-nation republic in mind but thought that would be too complicated to explain to the victorious Allied powers then creating nations at Versailles.

"So they left out the dash and that is what gave rise to the whole painful story of Czechoslovakia."

Havel was so eloquent he got more than a hyphen out of Parliament. He got two spaces and an and. And so it came to pass, in a part of the world shaped by the tribal migrations before history and, since then, by wars, revolutions, plots, coups and summit deals without number, the nation now is officially the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic.

Perhaps it was his hernia or the distractions of governance but the hero of the nation's liberation might be forgiven for mistaking a dash for a hyphen. A dash is a tad longer and, in function, probably more useful in Havel's work as a playwright and politician. Its first assigned mission is to indicate an emphatic pause or abrupt change in thought.

In Mr. Webster's first definition, a hyphen is used to divide or join words or parts of words. Thus, from the start, a hyphen is expected to be both a divider and a unifier, which is why the stylebook of the Oxford University Press warns, "If you take the hyphen seriously, you will surely go mad."

A hyphen also is expected to help avoid confusion, ambiguity, absurdity, even insult. It treads on treacherous turf. Think of the thin line that is crossed should you drop a hyphen from a small-business man, who is not a midget.

According to "The Story of English," there are about 2,700 languages in the world, and, as with death and taxes, one assumes the hyphen gets to most or many of them.

More people speak Chinese than any other language, but English is used in the most countries and, with the orbiting impact of television and radio, comes closest to being the planetary language. Thus, le snacque-barre found its way to Paris and, like seksapil, dzhin-in-tonik surfaced in Moscow.

Clearly, the hyphen is not exclusively an American or capitalist problem, although the Chinese might be suggesting that. Baden Baden may have escaped but not Bosnia-Hercegovina, Yugoslavia, which belonged to Turkey until the Hapsburgs took it in 1908 and made it part of the schizoid Austro-Hungarian Empire where the same man ruled as emperor on one side of the hyphen and king on the other and commanded different prime ministers in both.

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