Question marks

What is the origin of the question mark?

Rather fittingly, the origins of the question mark are clouded in myth and mystery. One of the most appealing stories links the curve of the question mark to the shape of an inquisitive cat’s tail. This feline connection is either attributed to the ancient Egyptians (who were, of course, famed for their worship of cats), or to a monk who took inspiration from his curious pet cat, and included the symbol in his manuscript. A parallel story suggests that the exclamation mark derives from the shape of a surprised cat’s tail! Sadly, like many of the most charming and amusing origin stories, there is no evidence to back up this tale.

Another possibility links the question mark with the Latin word quaestio (‘question’). Supposedly, in the Middle Ages scholars would write ‘quaestio’ at the end of a sentence to show that it was a question, which in turn was shortened to qo. Eventually, the was written on top of the o, before steadily morphing into a recognisably modern question mark. However, just like our cat friends above, there is no manuscript evidence for this theory.

The story accepted by most involves Alcuin of York, an English scholar and poet born in 735, who was invited to join the court of Charlemagne in 781. Once there, Alcuin became one of Charlemagne’s chief advisors, and wrote a great number of books, including some works on grammar. In the early Middle Ages, punctuation was limited to a system of dots at different levels. Recognizing the limitations of this system, Alcuin created the punctus interrogativus or ‘point of interrogation’. This mark was a dot with a symbol resembling a tilde or ‘lightning flash’ above it, representing the rising tone of voice used when asking a question. This new punctuation mark spread rapidly from the court of Charlemagne to other centres of learning. However, its use still remained haphazard, and it was often interchanged with the exclamation mark, or omitted entirely. It wasn’t until the 17th century that the question mark gained the familiar form and rules of use that we know today, and not until the mid-19th century that it first began to be referred to as a ‘question mark’.

 

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