From the University of Cambridge, a news item:

Cambridge University manuscript specialist, Dr. Chip Coakley has identified what may be the world’s earliest example of a question mark. The symbol in question is two dots, one above the other, similar in appearance to a colon, rather than the familiar squiggle of the modern question mark. The double dot symbol appears in Syriac manuscripts of the Bible dating back to the fifth century.

…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.

(Thanks, Paul!)


  1. In Spanish, questions start with the upside down question mark. When I first started learning Spanish I thought this was kind of odd. The logic of it is as you pointed out, sort of alerts the speaker how to read the sentence from the beginning. It also lets a reader know that this is going to be a question.

  2. @Shirley: It also has the interesting effect of letting you know where the question starts. The meaning of “¿Vienes mañana, comeremos pollo?” is different from the meaning of “Vienes mañana, ¿comeremos pollo?” (Those probably aren’t very idiomatic sentences — my Spanish is strictly passive — but you get the idea.)

  3. Isn’t that the Tengwar question-mark as well? (Though that one comes at the end of the sentence, not the beginning.)

  4. > my Spanish is strictly passive
    No, passive would be “pollo será comido por nosotros?”

  5. Many have found the Spanish inverted question mark a strange device. But when Charles Darwin encountered it on his travels he liked it enough to adopt it for use in his notebooks.

  6. Speaking of punctuation, was anybody else startled by the Cambridge comma after “specialist”?

  7. Bathrobe says

    No, I wasn’t startled by it at all. Although I guess I should have been. Maybe these things matter less than we think.

  8. Is really Spanish the only language that uses opening question marks?

  9. Oh, I don’t think it matters, and I don’t think anyone should be startled.

  10. In Spanish it should be another comma after “Dr. Chip Coakley”, this would mark an apposition. As when you write: “The president of the United States, Barack Obama, said…”
    But punctuation is very different in Spanish and English (I would finished my statement with “…” but perhaps in English I should write “—”)

  11. This sounds an awful lot like a cantillation mark. In which case, I would ask whether this research just represents an antedating of such marks by a century or so (

  12. Speaking of punctuation, was anybody else startled by the Cambridge comma after “specialist”?
    “Cambridge comma” – I like that. Startled, no – saddened, yes.
    I don’t think it matters, and I don’t think anyone should be startled.
    Does ignorant misuse of commas matter? In so far as it makes me fear for the general competence and intelligence of the writer, yes.
    In Spanish it should be another comma after “Dr. Chip Coakley”, this would mark an apposition.
    Julia, the phrase would only require commas in English it it was a non-restrictive, in which case it ought to read “The Cambridge University manuscript specialist, Dr. Chip Coakley, has …”, which implies there is only one, or “A Cambridge University manuscript specialist, Dr. Chip Coakley, has …”, which suggests there are several Cambridge University manuscript specialists but tells us which one. Here “Cambridge University manuscript specialist” is being used adjectivally or as if it were Dr Coakley’s title, and should not have a comma separating it from the doctor, any more than one would write *Doctor, Chip Coakley”.
    What DID startle me was the information in the story that the Syriac question-mark
    “doesn’t appear on all questions: ones with a wh- word don’t need it, just as in English”
    Syriac question-words began with a wh-, just like in modern English? Who knew?

  13. Ah, I see! Thank you, zytophile.

  14. dearieme says

    ‘Chip Coakley’ is such a wonderful name that it must either be made up, or American. The latter, it would seem:
    Though that doesn’t preclude the former, I suppose.

  15. I had a hunch he was an American, and in fact a fairly chipper American, when he was quoted as saying “When you are sitting round a table reading a Syriac text with students, they ask all kinds of questions – like what the heck does this or that dot mean – […]”
    In fact, I wonder if he really said “sitting around” a table and the English reporter heard it as “round”.

  16. From the article:

    Syriac studies are blessed by the survival of a collection of very early manuscripts, the remnants of one derelict monastery library. In the 1840s, the British Museum stumped up almost £5000 to buy them, and scholars have lived off this purchase ever since.

    I wouldn’t pay that much for a derelict library. I rephrase what I have written when, on proofreading, I find that it parses ambiguously: “derelict [monastery library]” and “[derelict monastery] library”. The former is what first suggested itself.
    I suppose that is due to “pattern expectation”: I read “derelict”, and expect a noun or noun phrase to follow. One standard expression is “derelict building”, another is “monastery library”.
    Also from the article:

    … said Dr. Coakley. “In addition, as I’ve got older I’ve got fascinated by smaller and smaller things like punctuation marks.”

    They say that old people tend to be set in their ways, and to hold unyielding positions on general subjects. So only details remain to fuss over.

  17. Stu, what’s so bad about the derelict library of a monastery? For that matter, how could the library of a derelict monastery not also be the derelict library of a monastery?

  18. empty: what’s so bad about the derelict library of a monastery?
    My point was that I wouldn’t pay £5000 for it. I take “derelict library” to mean that the books in it are in poor shape. When books are not housed properly, they fall prey to mildew, worms and homeless persons overcome by a sudden call of nature (that’s the reason they are sometimes called “squatters”).
    how could the library of a derelict monastery not also be the derelict library of a monastery?
    I take “derelict monastery” to mean that it no longer houses monks, and as a whole has fallen into disrepair. But the library area could still be in good shape, although in the rest of the building the plaster flakes down on mice and sin.

  19. To me a derelict monastery is an abandoned monastery, not specifically a dilapidated abandoned monastery. Likewise a derelict library is an abandoned library, not specifically an abandoned library whose books have been ravaged by time.

  20. MW says:

    1 : abandoned especially by the owner or occupant; also : RUN-DOWN.

    The run-down link points to dilapidated. We’re both within our rights, unfortunately. When everybody wins, there’s no point in playing.

  21. J.W. Brewer says

    It’s also possible that the derelict monastery in question was, say, way out in the desert where it was too dry for mildew etc. to take hold and too remote for squatters to move in. (A disproportionate number of surviving early Christian manuscripts are from Egypt, due largely to the climate, and the Syriac-speaking part of the world likewise had some pretty arid parts.)
    By way of parallel to Torah cantillation, one traditional Western style of chanting the Gospel pericope at Mass (and sometimes also the Epistle pericopes) involves shifting the pitch being chanted on at the beginning of any sentence (sometimes only the final clause in a sufficiently long or syntactically convoluted sentence) which is a question, as well doing a different sequence of pitches at the end. I’m not sure whether and how the liturgical books the deacon would have had in front of him while chanting were historically annotated to cue this, although I expect it wasn’t with the Spanish-style upside-down opening question mark. I have a 1988 reprint edition of an originally early/mid-20th-century Anglo-Catholic missal that uses the typographical mark I think usually called a “double dagger” to mean “shift gears beginning with the following word to that distinctive this-part-will-conclude-with-a-question-mark chant pattern,” but I don’t know if that was the sole or traditional or original practice.

  22. We’ve got rather a nice set of chairs that came from a monastery, bought long since from a rag-and-bone man.
    P.S. My Lord, they’re still on the go.

  23. narrowmargin says

    I was surprised, given the geography and close linguistic affinity with Spanish, to discover that Catalan has, like English, only one question mark (at the end).

  24. marie-lucie says

    Catalan is also geographically and linguistically close to Occitan, and also to French, neither of which uses the Spanish pre-question mark.

  25. This Spanish artefact could be called a leading question mark.

  26. I’m not convinced that the Spanish inverted comment is helpful. I never had any trouble figuring out how to read interrogative sentences in other languages. And when I read my first book in Spanish, I didn’t feel any difference.
    Although, Ran, I didn’t understand your example at all, so I’m not sure if you are on to something.

  27. @JR: Yeah, I didn’t do a good job. I was going for something analogous to English, “Are you coming tomorrow, we’ll have chicken?” vs. “You’re coming tomorrow — shall we have chicken?” I can read Spanish just fine, and can generally express myself somewhat intelligibly in the language, but I’m just not good enough at it, or comfortable enough in it, to construct a realistic minimal pair for the location of “¿”.

  28. Yeah, but wouldn’t that be two separate sentences in both English and Spanish? “Are you coming tomorrow, we’ll have chicken?” doesn’t make sense to me in English.

  29. It certainly could be two separate sentences in English (“Are you coming tomorrow? We’ll have chicken!”), but in colloquial speech people often splice such things together. Admittedly, it’s not the most natural example, since, again, my goal was to contrive a minimal pair in Spanish; but if you heard someone ask “Are you coming tomorrow, we’ll have chicken?” in a context where that would make sense, I really don’t think you’d bat an eye.

  30. JR, I’m not a specialist but I do think that the “pre-question mark” is very useful in Spanish.
    For instance, in the examples below it shows you from the beginning that your are dealing with a question:
    “De verdad tenemos que ir.”
    it’s very different from
    “¿De verdad tenemos que ir?”
    “Llegaron los soldados hasta la casa de gobierno.”
    “¿Llegaron los soldados hasta la casa de gobierno?”
    The first question mark signals the intonation needed at the beginning of the sentence.
    And, Ran, your example sounds perfect to me, perhaps is more clear in the 3º person of the plural (ellos/they, but it also works for the 2º plural of respect (?): “ustedes”):
    “Vienen mañana, comeremos pollo.”
    It’s different from
    “¿Vienen mañana? Comeremos pollo.
    And also from
    “Vienen mañana. ¿Comeremos pollo?”

  31. Pitman’s and Ellis’s English Phonetic Alphabet had questions marks at the beginning to distinguish a query from doubt. (And it has smile and sigh! An American offshoot has marks for sarcasm.)

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