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The question of the question mark

July 22, 2011

Suddenly, I have a Duran Duran song stuck in my head.

Zawga elayaOh, right. Sorry. Um … Syriac. That’s the important thing here. You know, ancient language, all that?

Anyway, a Cambridge researcher has asserted the identification of the world’s first question mark, a Syriac character called zawga elaya:

The double dot mark, known to later grammarians as zawga elaya, is written above a word near the start of a sentence to tell the reader that it is a question. It doesn’t appear on all questions: ones with a wh- word don’t need it, just as in English ‘Who is it’ can only be a question (although we use a question mark anyway). But a question like ‘You’re going away?’ needs the question mark to be understood; and in Syriac, zawga elaya marks just these otherwise ambiguous expressions.

“Reading aloud, the same function is served by a rising tone of voice – or at least it is in English – and it is interesting to ponder whether zawga elaya really marks the grammar of the question, or whether it is a direction to someone reading the Bible aloud to modulate their voice,” said Dr Coakley.

Question marks in Greek and Latin script emerged later than in Syriac, with the earliest examples dating from the eighth century. It is likely that these symbols developed independently from each other and from Syriac. Hebrew and Arabic, close neighbours of Syriac, have nothing comparable. Armenian, another neighbour, has a similar mark, but it seems to be later.

For his own part, Dr. Chip Coakley is gratified by the reception his argument has received from fellow academics. “I’d describe it as a significant footnote in the history of writing,” he explained, adding cheerfully, “And it’s satisfying to have made sense out of some of those weird dots.”

-bd

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