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Syriac double dot: World's earliest question mark

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Syriac double dot: World's earliest question mark

Aug-07-2011 at 11:05 AM (UTC+3 Nineveh, Assyria)

Extract from the New Testament in Syriac from the sixth century.
(Photo: British Library Board)

Syriac double dot: World's earliest question mark
by CBS News. July 22, 2011.

For decades, grammarians studying ancient Syriac texts were puzzled by the meaning of a symbol that resembles a modern colon. But a Cambridge researcher says that he's uncovered the mystery behind this double dot, known as the "zagwa elaya," or "upper pair." And if he's right, then this may be the earliest known usage of a punctuation symbol representing a question mark.

"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," Cambridge manuscript expert Chip Coakley told the Cambridge news service. "In addition, as I've got older I've got fascinated by smaller and smaller things like punctuation marks."

The zawga elaya, is written above a word near the start of a sentence to indicate to a reader that it is a question. However, the double dot does not accompany all questions.

"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.

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

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1. World’s earliest example of question mark identified...

Aug-07-2011 at 11:14 AM (UTC+3 Nineveh, Assyria)

In reply to message #0
 
Extract from the New Testament in Syriac from the sixth century.
(Photo: British Library Board)

World’s earliest example of question mark identified in Classical Syriac
by Alice Baghdjian. Reuters, July 22, 2011.

LONDON: What could be the world’s earliest example of a question mark has been identified in Classical Syriac manuscripts dating from the fifth century.

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.”

“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,” he said. “It’s satisfying to have made sense of some of those weird dots.”

Although the zagwa elaya is discussed in later grammatical tracts, it was not identified correctly, Coakley told Reuters. “Later grammarians did talk about it but did not really know how it was used. They thought it indicated sarcasm or reproof, which turns out to only be partly true.

“I went back to the earliest manuscripts in the British Library to see how the zagwa elaya was used there. These were manuscripts later grammarians did not have access to.”

Coakley’s discovery that the zagwa elaya may in fact is a question mark identifies Syriac as the first language to use punctuation as a grammatical indicator of a question.

“Other languages, such as Hebrew, use particles to mark questions but in Classical Syriac we see the zagwa elaya as a grammatical marker,” he said.

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.

This is significant for theories of how the ancient language might have sounded, said the researcher.

“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.

Syriac is thought to have appeared in the Middle East from the first century and boasts a large Christian literature. It declined as a spoken language with the arrival of Islam and Arabic.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 23, 2011, on page 16.
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News :: http://www.dailystar.com.lb)

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2. The riddle of the Syriac double dot: it’s the world’s...

Aug-07-2011 at 11:35 AM (UTC+3 Nineveh, Assyria)

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Extract from the New Testament in Syriac from the sixth century.
(Photo: British Library Board)

The riddle of the Syriac double dot: it’s the world’s earliest question mark
by Cambridge University. July 22, 2011.

I’d describe it as a significant footnote in the history of writing.

Dr. Chip Coakley

Manuscripts written in Syriac, an ancient language of the Middle East, are peppered with mysterious dots. Among them is the vertical double dot or zagwa elaya. A Cambridge academic thinks that the zagwa elaya is the world’s earliest question mark.

Cambridge University manuscript specialist, Dr Chip Coakley has identified what may be the world’s earliest example of a question mark. 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. Syriac studies are blessed by the survival of a collection of very early manuscripts, the remnants of one derelict monastery library. In the 1840s, the British Museum stumped up almost £5000 to buy them, and scholars have lived off this purchase ever since.

Manuscripts of the Bible are not even the majority of the collection now in the British Library, but they have their special points of interest. One of these is the way that the graceful and flowing Syriac script is peppered with dots. Some of these dots are well understood, but some are not – some, indeed, probably not even by the scribes, who did not copy them consistently. All this made for a confusing picture, and it needed a patient scholar to start to make sense of it.

One step at least has been taken by Dr Coakley, a manuscript specialist at Cambridge University Library who teaches Syriac to students in the Divinity and Middle Eastern Studies faculties. “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,” said Dr Coakley. “In addition, as I’ve got older I’ve got fascinated by smaller and smaller things like punctuation marks.”

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,” said Dr Coakley.

Question marks in Greek and Latin script emerged later than in Syriac, with the earliest examples dating from the eighth century. It is likely that these symbols developed independently from each other and from Syriac. Hebrew and Arabic, close neighbours of Syriac, have nothing comparable. Armenian, another neighbour, has a similar mark, but it seems to be later.

Last month Dr 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.

Dr Coakley is quietly thrilled by his finding. “I’d describe it as a significant footnote in the history of writing,” he said. “And it’s satisfying to have made sense of some of those weird dots.”

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Assyria \ã-'sir-é-ä\ n (1998)   1:  an ancient empire of Ashur   2:  a democratic state in Bet-Nahren, Assyria (northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, southeastern Turkey and eastern Syria.)   3:  a democratic state that fosters the social and political rights to all of its inhabitants irrespective of their religion, race, or gender   4:  a democratic state that believes in the freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture in faithfulness to the principles of the United Nations Charter — Atour synonym

Ethnicity, Religion, Language
» Israeli, Jewish, Hebrew
» Assyrian, Christian, Aramaic
» Saudi Arabian, Muslim, Arabic
Assyrian \ã-'sir-é-an\ adj or n (1998)   1:  descendants of the ancient empire of Ashur   2:  the Assyrians, although representing but one single nation as the direct heirs of the ancient Assyrian Empire, are now doctrinally divided, inter sese, into five principle ecclesiastically designated religious sects with their corresponding hierarchies and distinct church governments, namely, Church of the East, Chaldean, Maronite, Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholic.  These formal divisions had their origin in the 5th century of the Christian Era.  No one can coherently understand the Assyrians as a whole until he can distinguish that which is religion or church from that which is nation -- a matter which is particularly difficult for the people from the western world to understand; for in the East, by force of circumstances beyond their control, religion has been made, from time immemorial, virtually into a criterion of nationality.   3:  the Assyrians have been referred to as Aramaean, Aramaye, Ashuraya, Ashureen, Ashuri, Ashuroyo, Assyrio-Chaldean, Aturaya, Chaldean, Chaldo, ChaldoAssyrian, ChaldoAssyrio, Jacobite, Kaldany, Kaldu, Kasdu, Malabar, Maronite, Maronaya, Nestorian, Nestornaye, Oromoye, Suraya, Syriac, Syrian, Syriani, Suryoye, Suryoyo and Telkeffee. — Assyrianism verb

Aramaic \ar-é-'máik\ n (1998)   1:  a Semitic language which became the lingua franca of the Middle East during the ancient Assyrian empire.   2:  has been referred to as Neo-Aramaic, Neo-Syriac, Classical Syriac, Syriac, Suryoyo, Swadaya and Turoyo.

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