Beginning with a question mark

The written and the spoken word

We ask a question: how do you ask a question?

Recently, reading a fairly thick history book, we came upon the remarkable fact that the question mark was invented by Carolingian scribes.  That is, this bit of punctuation came from the era of Charlemagne’s dynasty.  That was a long time ago.  Charlemagne himself is conveniently located in time by recalling that he was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day in the year 800 AD (or CE).  Our writer was surprised, however, not at how early this was, but at how late.  We posses a whole library of writings from centuries before this.  In particular, all of Classical Greece and Rome went without this bit of punctuation.

It’s not that they didn’t ask questions.  The Greeks of the fifth century BC/BCE were famous for asking all sorts of questions, pertinent and impertinent (it would be foolish to pretend we have the answers to all of them even now).  Running the Roman Empire must have meant many questions from Rome to the provinces (“Where are the taxes for last year?”) and from the provinces to Rome (“Who is consul for Africa next year?”).  No doubt they had some way to indicate inquiry.

But the intellectual culture of Greece and Rome, we are reminded from time to time, was overwhelmingly spoken.  Skill in debate and oratory was mandatory for any politician or public official, to say nothing of lawyers or actors.  Matters were decided by discussion, often public.  Greek tragic plays were set to music and included dancing, both of which we know almost nothing about.  The written forms we possess were originally only a sort of memory-help for the actors, and give only a faint idea of what the plays must have actually been like.  Well, the transients sights and sounds of the Classic Era are long gone: in a strange irony, all we have of a basically oral culture is its writings.

The barbarian culture that replaced it in the West was also oral, for the understandable reason that literacy was rare.  A legal decision was reached orally and rested on the memories of those present at the time; hence the emphasis on having lots of witnesses of a range of ages.  The legal documents we have for the first centuries of this era are just records of the oral decisions, and only slowly began to have any legal force in themselves.

With the Carolingians, however, we begin to see a widespread written culture.  By endowing monasteries and abbeys they created places for churchmen, almost the only literate people in that age.  Although the number of the literate remained small, there were enough who lived through writings to constitute a culture.

This was far more important than it looks.  Almost all of the ancient manuscipts that survived to Carolingian times made it to the present day.  We owe the fact that we are intellectual heirs of Greece and Rome to the people who felt the need for a question mark.

Share Button