A Short History of the Question Mark

Recently I wrote a short bit about the question mark in an e-book about questions for book clubs.   Here’s the short bit I wrote about the question mark.





We take our written language with its upper and lower cases, spacing and punctuation for granted and forget that for many centuries it didn’t exist.  Ancient readers had none of the marks that today we can’t live without!    

According to Keith Houston, author of the most delightful Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols and Other Typographical Marks (one of the best titles ever!) it was a 3rd century Egyptian who was chief of staff at the famous library in Alexandria who changed this run-on nonsense.

Aristophanes was so fed up with the painstaking effort of reading scrolls that he instituted a system of dots within the line of text that writers could use to indicate pauses. 

Dots at the top, middle or bottom would indicate the length of the pause.  A dot at the top would be a short pause as with a coma.  Middle dots would indicate a longer pause as with a semi-colon;  Bottom dots would indicate an even longer pause as with a period.   As Houston notes in his essay, The Mysterious Origins of Punctuation it wasn’t quite punctuation, but it was a start. 

However, this adventure with punctuation didn’t last long.   As the Romans took over, Western civilization went back to ‘reading’ — which meant the reading of texts out loud.  With this Roman ‘reading’ — Aristophanes dots fell by the wayside. 

It was the rise of Christianity and the production of manuscripts that brought the need for punctuation back into focus.  Christian monks were a quieter lot than the Romans and did much of their ‘reading’ silently.   

The writers of these Christian texts began to see the need for punctuation in order to clarify the meaning of their words. Monks who read these manuscripts to themselves often missed their meaning.  Hence, the manuscript writers began to see the need for clarification and began adding marks to their texts. But, there was still no unified method of punctuation.

By the 8th century, Charlemagne the famed French King, hoping to add even more order to his kingdom, invited a famous English scholar, Alcuin of York, ‘the most learned man anywhere to be found’ to join the French court.

Alcuin accepted the invitation and produced a myriad of books and poems.  The story is that It became apparent that he needed to institute some form of punctuation for stops and starts if his quiet audience was going to enjoy his creations.  So he created the punctus interrogativus or point of interrogation which signaled to the reader an inflection at the end of a clause. 

As for the question mark — it is unclear why the particular symbol  ?  is used.  Some suggest it’s an ancient Egyptian symbol that emulates the formation of a cat’s tail when it’s inquisitive.  The Egyptian’s loved and honored their cats. 

Others suggest the mark emanates from the Latin word quaestio which means question.   Over the centuries the word may have gotten shortened to a Q like symbol.   In any case, we, the modern reader should be grateful for the invention of the question mark — as it’s led to many good discussions!

You’re probably asking yourself what does this little bit about the question mark have to do with books and self-development?   The story of the question mark is a reminder that change takes time — it’s a process.  It’s often a step forward then a step back till it’s time for another step forward.

What’s the process you’re working on changing?  Is there a book that can help? 

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