4 Surprising Punctuation Differences in Other Languages
With our ever increasing dependence on technology and texting, punctuation has become a rather unappreciated asset in our languages. Who even bothers with commas and full stops anymore when they only ever take up more characters on our latest Tweet? The meaning is all in the words, right?
The answer is yes… and no. We don’t always realise it, but punctuation can actually have a massive impact on the way we interpret a sentence. It allows us to ‘hear’, in the written language, the tone of the sentence we read. It lets us see every nuance and emphasis. (See what I did there?) A single comma can be the difference between ‘Let’s eat, grandpa’ and ‘Let’s eat grandpa’. In short, punctuation saves lives, people, and not just in English.
Punctuation can adapt in fascinating ways to fit the differing structures of every language across the world. Here are just some of the ways in which punctuation fits into languages very different from English.
The Spanish question mark (or question marks) is probably one of those oddities which English speakers will never come across. In a typical Spanish question, the punctuation will be placed at either end of the phrase. For example:
¿Estás estudiando? – Are you studying?
One of the interesting things about Spanish is that statements can be turned into questions simply by raising the tone at the end of the phrase. Unlike in English, it is not always necessary to change the word order of the sentence.
Estás estudiando. – You are studying.
Because there is no grammatical change in the statement when it is turned into a question, inverted question marks are placed at the very beginning of the phrase to let the reader know that they are, in fact, reading out a question. The same rule applies for Spanish exclamation marks. The upside down punctuation at the beginning of a phrase is a signal for the tone of the rest of the sentence.
TLDR: Why is punctuation different in Spanish? So you can figure out what kind of sentence you’re actually reading.
Chinese Full-Width Punctuation
Have you ever messed about with your settings ａｎｄ ｅｎｄｅｄ ｕｐ ｗｉｔｈｔｈｉｓ ｗｅｉｒｄ, ｓｐａｃｅｄ ｏｕｔｆｏｎｔ? This font is what English looks like typed out on a full-width keyboard.
A full-width keyboard is used for languages such as Chinese or Korean. Unlike alphabetical languages such as English, where words can be of varying lengths depending on how many letters they are made up of, each distinct Chinese character takes up the exact same amount of space, as if written in a grid.
Take, for example, this famous Chinese poem from the poet Li Bai:
“The bright lunar beams before my bed,
Like frost upon the ground,
I raise my head to watch the moon,
Then lower it to think of home.”
Notice the tidiness of the poem in its original form, compared to the uneven lengths of each line when in English? Chinese is a much more compact as a language, and this is where the full-width keyboard comes in. It ensures that every character is evenly spaced apart.
The same applies for the punctuation. Each piece of punctuation is processed as one character and occupies its own, full ‘box’ along the grid. For that reason, Chinese punctuation is a little larger than our Latin punctuation. The full stop . becomes a 。 and the comma , becomes a ，. The additional spacing would make the Chinese text perfectly distributed, but also has the additional bonus of makes the punctuation a little easier to see.
TLDR: Why is punctuation different in Chinese? Because writing is all about the visual aesthetic. (Obviously.)
And then there are languages such as Armenian, which uses a completely different set of punctuation to English. In some cases, the punctuation is incorporated completely into the words itself.
Take our traditional question mark, for example, ? . In Armenian, the question mark is dictated by a harsakan nshan, which looks like this: ՞ . This symbol is inserted into the word which it is supposed to emphasise.
In the below examples, the harsakan nshan is red to highlight its position in the sentence.
Դոլ՞ գնոլմ ես մարզասրահ։
Are you going to the gym?
Դոլ գնոլ՞մ ես մարզասրահ։
Are you going to the gym?
Դոլ գնոլմ ես մարզասրա՞հ։
Are you going to the gym?
In this way, there is no confusion when reading as to what the questioner is actually questioning. Whether they are asking about the subject, whether they are questioning the action or the verb, or whether they are asking about the object of the sentence.
Incidentally, the symbol : at the end of every Armenian sentence is the equivalent of our full stop. It’s called the verjaket, and you might be thinking that it looks very similar to our Latin colon. There are actually some small differences between the two in terms of spacing, but today many Armenian printers use the Latin colon in place of the verjaket since they are so similar. So unlike in Chinese, appearances aren’t everything!
TLDR: Why is punctuation different in Armenian? So you can place the right emphasis on the right words, rather than just throwing all the punctuation at the end of a phrase. Clever!
Of course, the rules are slightly different – or perhaps not so different – in languages which read from left to right.
Just like our punctuation, full stops go at the ends of sentences and commas break up the phrases. However, in Arabic, the punctuation would be placed at what looks like the beginning of a sentence for those of us who read from right to left.
How are you?
Since the Arabic language is read from right to left, it makes sense for the punctuation to also be inverted to reflect the nature of the language.
TLDR: Why is punctuation different in Arabic? Because you’re reading in a different direction, so the punctuation should face a different direction too.
There are lots of different aspects to consider when learning a language, and punctuation can be an oft forgotten aspect. Not all languages use the Latin punctuation, and this is important to bear in mind no matter what stage of learning you are at! Let us know in the comments below if you’ve ever found yourself in an embarrassing misunderstanding because of misused punctuation! Spread the message and start punctuating!