Philology Phriday–?

24 Sep

You’re probably wondering why the subject of a weekly post about the sordid and only sometimes interesting history of words is a punctuation mark. Valid question. And for that valid question, I’ll give a rather not-so-valid answer, simply that we’re on the letter “q” in our adventures. +, the story of the question mark must be more interesting than the multiple uses of words like “question” or “query” (though, it may be of worth to note that the Anglo-Norman word questiun connoted torture in the early 14th century, or that the Latin root for the word “query” meant simply complaint even though now we use it to mean something like a question implying specific doubts).

Parenthetical discussions of query actually bring us to the point of this post–the question mark. The OED lists this mark under the multiple definitions of “query”. Here’s what they have to say about it:

2. A question mark (?), used in writing to indicate a degree of doubt about the accuracy or validity of a following (occas., a preceding) word or statement. Also used in speech to express a written question mark of this kind. Cf.

QY. int.

So in the cases highlighted by the OED, “query” is really just a term to categorize moments when speakers or writers express doubt (at least somewhat) explicitly. But this has yet to explain the evolution of the question mark itself. Where does this thing come from?

The history of the ?’s inception is one of the oldest unanswered questions of the like totality of humankind. Some think it started in the Middle Ages and was inspired by the way dogs and cats curve their tails when confused. Hilarious as this answer might be, it still isn’t very correct or historically accurate. One of the more accepted genealogies for the ? comes from the work of Lynne Truss who credits the question mark, more or less as we know it today, to Alcuin of York (you know, the poet, ecclesiastic, scholar, and teacher from Northumbria) whose punctus interrogativus resembled something like a lightning bolt descending from right to left. The early Middle Ages punctuation used a series of dots at different levels, and the lightning bolt signified an inflection or intonation. This means that reading was often more musical.

Over time, however, the Alcuinesque “stroke over dot” theory saw a new competitor for explaining power, this time in the abbreviations of Middle Ages scribes that signaled a question. This abbreviation of “qo” shortened the Latin term “quaestio” (meaning question). Over time, the q formed into the hook while the o morphed into a simple dot, leaving us with the ? that we know today.

I must say that all of these histories are supposed. None have been actually proven. This leaves us with the question that we started, or at least I started, with: Where does the ? come from?


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