Monday, 14 April 2008

On question-marks

A correspondent writes to ask when the question-mark symbol was first used in English? Was it an inverted semi-colon.

No, the question-mark is much older. The origins of punctuation lie in the need to give clues as to how liturgical texts should be read aloud. A system of symbols developed in Europe in the eighth century - they were called 'positurae' in the Middle Ages - distinguishing the end of a statement, the end of a question, and a major within-sentence pause. The punctus interrogativus, as it was called, consisted of a dot underneath a right-leaning or horizontal wavering dash - a bit like a modern italic question-mark, but lacking the prominent semi-circular bend. The influence of Charlemagne's court spread it throughout the monasteries of Europe in the ninth century, including England. As handwriting practice changed, in the Middle Ages, the mark became more rounded in shape, to distinguish it from the other marks (and especially, later, from the exclamation-mark). The earliest printers cut a fount which reflected this shape, and gradually the question-mark emerged in its modern upright look. The 'old roman' fount of Aldus Manutius became the European norm in the late 15th century. In England it seems to have been first used by Pynson in 1502, and question-marks are regularly found in printed texts of the 16th century. The semi-colon took much longer to be accepted.

Anyone interested in the history of punctuation should look at M B Parkes, Pause and Effect (Scolar Press, 1992), which has an excellent set of pictorial illustrations of manuscripts throughout the period.

1 comment:

Ronald Kyrmse said...

Was the question mark an inverted semicolon? No, but in modern Greek the question mark _is_ writtenm with the glyph that we use as a semicolon.