Friday, July 22, 2011
  ?Why is punctuation at the end



A rather cute bit of linguistic research has established the earliest known use of a punctuation mark denoting a question.
The symbol, a double dot resembling the modern colon, is known as the "zagwa elaya," or "upper pair." Its function as a question mark was pinned down by Chip Coakley, a manuscript specialist at Cambridge University.

By studying the biblical manuscripts at the British Museum in London, Coakley was able to solve the mystery of the two dots, which has puzzled grammarians for decades, and described his finding as a "significant footnote in the history of writing."

The zagwa elaya is written at the start of declarative sentences to indicate their function as questions, something which would otherwise be ambiguous.

It is not used in questions with interrogative words, the equivalents of "wh-words" in English.

"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," Coakley said.

I'd never thought about this before. If punctuation is going to serve any intonational purpose, it really needs to be at the start of the sentence, like the key signature on a musical staff. Spanish is the only modern language that follows this bit of logic, with its upside-down question and exclamation at the start of the sentence.

As a pitch indicator, the mark is nearly always superfluous in English. We use a rising intonation only for yes-no questions, not for the how/what/where type. Yes-no questions always start with the verb (or the left part of a two-word verb) so the need for a rising intonation is obvious after you read the first word.

Examples:
Did you fix the computer? Was he there on time? Has the moon reached full?

Without the mark at the end, you still know exactly what to do.
Did you fix the computer. Was he there on time. Has the moon reached full.

The only exception is a fairly rare and Germanic construction for a conditional clause: Had he only asked me, I could have helped. This can be mistaken for a yes-no question until you read most of the sentence.

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Polistra was named after the original townsite of Manhattan (the one in Kansas). When I was growing up in Manhattan, I spent a lot of time exploring by foot, bike, and car. I discovered the ruins of an old mill along Wildcat Creek, and decided (inaccurately) that it was the remains of the original site of Polistra. Accurate or not, I've always liked the name, with its echoes of Poland (an under-appreciated friend of freedom) and stars. ==== The title icon is explained here. ==== Switchover: This 2007 entry marks a sharp change in worldview from neocon to pure populist. ===== The long illustrated story of Polistra's Dream is a time-travel fable, attempting to answer the dangerous revision of New Deal history propagated by Amity Shlaes. The Dream has 8 episodes, linked in a chain from the first. This entry explains the Shlaes connection.

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