Syriac double dot: identified as world's earliest question mark

Washington, July 25: A Cambridge University manuscript specialist has identified what may be the world's earliest example of a question mark.

Dr. Chip Coakley revealed the symbol in question is two dots, one above the other, similar in appearance to a colon, rather than the familiar squiggle of the modern question mark.

The double dot symbol appears in Syriac manuscripts of the Bible dating back to the fifth century. Syriac is a language of the Middle East with a large Christian literature and its golden age was in the centuries before the rise of Islam.

The manuscripts have their special points of interest and one of them is the way the graceful and flowing Syriac script is peppered with dots.

Some of these dots are well understood, but some are not, so Coakley, who teaches Syriac to students in the Divinity and Middle Eastern Studies faculties, tried to make sense of it.

"When you are sitting round a table reading a Syriac text with students, they ask all kinds of questions - like what the heck does this or that dot mean - and you want to be able to answer them," Coakley said.

"In addition, as I've got older I've got fascinated by smaller and smaller things like punctuation marks," he explained.

The double dot mark, known to later grammarians as zawga elaya, is written above a word near the start of a sentence to tell the reader that it is a question.

It doesn't appear on all questions: ones with a wh- word don't need it, just as in English 'Who is it' can only be a question (although we use a question mark anyway).

But a question like 'You're going away?' needs the question mark to be understood; and in Syriac, zawga elaya marks just these otherwise ambiguous expressions.

"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.

Last month Coakley presented his theory that the question mark is a Syriac invention "rather nervously" at a conference in the United States. But so far none of his fellow scholars has come up with an earlier question mark in any other ancient language.

"I'd describe it as a significant footnote in the history of writing. And it's satisfying to have made sense of some of those weird dots," he added.

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