The Greek question-mark / semicolon puzzle

spiros · 5 · 50897


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The saying "it's all Greek to me" is quite justified may I confess. And we do seem to puzzle foreign people. The following is a (justified and valid) question from a very professional client:

We are now implementing your translation. We have a question: why all sentences which in English end up with the question mark "?" in Greek end up with semicolon ";"

You do not have a question mark in Greek or what?

The answer is simply that the Greek question mark is the same sign as the English semicolon.

The Greek semicolon is this symbol "·" (ano teleia).
« Last Edit: 16 Aug, 2017, 12:08:14 by spiros »


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Σπύρο μου,

Μιας και η αγγλική γλώσσα είναι ιστορικά μεταγενέστερη μάλλον θα πρέπει να τους αντιστρέψεις το ερώτημα... :-)
« Last Edit: 27 Jul, 2018, 10:52:24 by wings »
Ο λόγος είναι μεγάλη ανάγκη της ψυχής. (Γιώργος Ιωάννου)


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Punctuation and the question mark: A timeline

  • 200 B.C.: The beginnings of the Greek system of punctuation. Aristophanes of Byzantium, librarian of the Museum at Alexandria, invents the critical signs, marks of quantity, accents, breathings, and so on, still employed in Greek texts.
  • 8th c. A.D.: Charlemagne’s Anglo-Saxon adviser Alcuin introduces the Carolingian minuscule script in Latin documents (the forerunners of our lowercase letters), along with the first evidence for a new system of punctuation.
  • 9th c.: The Greek punctuation system is supplemented by the Greek form of question mark (;).
  • 12th c.: Alcuin’s system reaches its perfection. Stops in the form of points or commas are joined by the mark later known as punctus elevatus (:) and by the question mark (punctus interrogativus), of much the same shape as the modern one but inclined to the right. The source of these two new marks was apparently the system of musical notation used for Gregorian chant.
  • 16th c.: The basic form of the question mark (?) was developed in sixteenth-century England. Typographic historians contend that the design for the question mark was derived from an abbreviation of the Latin word quaestio (=what). At first this symbol consisted of a capital 'Q' atop a lowercase 'o'. Over time this early symbol simplified to the mark we use today.
  • 17th c.: By the end of the century the various marks have received their modern names, and the exclamation mark, quotation marks, and the dash had been added to the system

Further reading:

The Creation of the Question Mark

(From the limited edition of poems A Brief History of Punctuation by Maurya Simon, October 2002)

It grew slowly, atom by atom, curving
its serpentine line around a doubt.
For eons it hung suspended in the air,
like a shepherd's crook, an ebony cane
a blind woman hung out at midnight
on an invisible clothesline.
It did not form itself from Adam's mouth,
it did not sprout as a kinky white hair
from Gilgamesh's never trimmed beard,
it did not electrify loose ganglia
into synaptic fright in God's mind,
nor curdle the earthworm, nor shape
the sickle that mows down everything.
Like a lily, it roused itself to life,
unfurling into reason's limbo quietly,
and it left in its wake a single teardrop,
a tiny pin-prick of dew, a dab of salt
for the air minions to lick eternally—
that minute mirror begetting wonder.
« Last Edit: 28 Oct, 2008, 22:50:19 by spiros »


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Νίκο, άψογος και multi-discourse!

This is a message from a Linux group:

The preferred character for the greek question mark is 003B (english semicolon), and this is not an advice of the operating systems engineers  but of the Unicode charset.

Thus, the rendering engine of the operating system may as well substitute the 037E character with the 003B character, even if there is  a glyph available, since the two characters are canonically equivalent as Vasilis said.

sentence-final punctuation
U+003B SEMICOLON is the preferred character Equivalents:
U+003B SEMICOLON semicolon

Notes: this, and not U+037E GREEK QUESTION MARK, is the preferred character
for 'Greek question mark'


just noticed that in the Unicode character table there is a special character (037E) for the Greek quotation mark.
Under X Windows (and also in other Operating Systems) this character is not in use (am I correct?) but is used the equivalent English semicolon (003B). Is this a bug or is intentionally this way?

It's quite intentional. This character is a canonical equivalent with the semicolon character; this means that, for all uses, the two are considered the same character. So there isn't much point in using it; it's probably there only for backwards compatibility with some existing legacy character set or something.

You can also type the Greek question mark in Microsoft Windows using Alt +037E.
Unicode Character 'GREEK QUESTION MARK'
« Last Edit: 07 Aug, 2014, 15:36:35 by wings »


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