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First Question Mark Identified in Syriac Manuscripts

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First Question Mark Identified in Syriac Manuscripts

A Cambridge University scholar believes he has identified the earliest known use of a question mark.

A Cambridge University scholar believes he has identified the earliest known use of a question mark. While studying fifth-and-sixth-century C.E. Biblical manuscripts written in Syriac, Chip Coakley, an ancient manuscript specialist at the Cambridge University Library, noticed that two dots, placed one above the other, appeared at the start of some sentences. According to Coakley, the double dot mark, known to later grammarians as zawga elaya, is used to tell the reader that the sentence should be read as a question.

While Syriac writers did not include question marks before who, what, where or when questions, they did use the mark when the reading of a sentence as a question (like “You’re going away?”) was more ambiguous. “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 Coakley.


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