You might have spent days on end running grammar drills or committing lists and lists of vocabulary to memory in your quest to learn a new language. And all of that stuff is certainly important; words and the rules that link them together are, after all, the building blocks of any tongue. But one thing that language classes don’t often spend a lot of time on is the infrastructure that holds these verbal units and expressions together on a page: punctuation marks! With all its nuances and particularities, punctuation in other languages is a topic that shouldn’t be overlooked.
It’s partly because punctuation marks only exist in the world of written language. An exclamation point in many languages, for example, is just an approximated way to capture verbal excitement, which you can express out loud by raising your voice, speeding up your speech, or changing your intonation.
If we think of written language as occasionally arbitrary (think about how the history of English means many of its words sound nothing like they’re spelled, like colonel, or how the letter h in Spanish is silent in words like hola or horario), you can see that the way we try to capture spoken language in writing isn’t always perfect. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth learning! Read on to find out more about punctuation marks around the world.
The Peculiarities Of Punctuation Marks In Other Languages
Learning a new language is often about finding ways to say what you want to say, but much of written language is being able to say what other people said, too. Think of any short story or novel you’ve read that has dialogue separate from the narration, or any time you’ve been in the mood to gossip with your best friend over a text message and you needed to recount verbatim that thing you can’t believe Becky said about your boyfriend last night. Enter the trusty quotation marks.
The rules for using this type of punctuation are pretty straightforward; it’s all about knowing the typographical rules of the language you’re learning, because the contexts in which you use them are pretty much the same.
In English, usually quotation marks look for the most part “like this” (or ‘like this’ if you want to embed a quote within a quote). But in German and some other languages like Czech or Danish, you’re more likely to find a typographical mark the Germans call Gänsefüßchen, known in English as inverted commas, and they look „like this“ in context (note that they’re not curving “inward” like in English notation). They’re probably the most common form of German quotation mark, especially in handwritten correspondence. Some languages like Dutch and Polish keep the first set of marks (the ones that precede the quote) inverted and then use the un-inverted English-style quotation marks after the quote („like so”).
In many other languages, you might find what are called guillemets (a French word meaning “quotation marks”), which look »like this« or sometimes ›like this‹ in context. Their inverted counterparts (so « comes first, followed by ») are popular in French and Spanish typography as well, though the French quotes usually have a space between the marks and the text, « like in this example ».
Quotes within quotes are language-specific, too, but many languages use a set of single quotation marks ‘like this’ or some variation of it. All of these differences are very nuanced, so don’t get discouraged if you don’t remember them right away; that’s where a quick Google search can be helpful!
The question mark is an essential tool in writing. After all, life isn’t all about statements of fact; sometimes, you’ve got to ask.
One language that’s notable for its out-of-the-ordinary usage of the question mark is Spanish, which adds a second symbol to the beginning of the phrase, flips it upside down and uses it with the first ordinary question mark to bookend an interrogative phrase. In practice, this looks like ¿Dónde están los niños?, or “Where are the children?” This rule also applies to exclamation marks, so you can express excitement with a phrase like ¡Dios mío!, or “My God!”.
Arabic and Persian are two examples of languages written right to left whose punctuation marks reflect the script’s, well, reflected nature. In these languages, you’ll see an inverted question mark (؟) that looks basically like the mirror image of the traditional (?). Take the Arabic phrase أين المدير؟ (“Where is the manager?”) for example. These languages invert their commas, too, to face the opposite direction on both axes (،). But keep in mind that Hebrew, also written right to left, uses traditional English notation. The languages’ choice of punctuation marks is somewhat arbitrary, as punctuation wasn’t really adopted by the language until the modern era.
In modern Greek, the question mark doesn’t look like a question mark at all. It looks like what English speakers call a semicolon (;) — and an actual semicolon is expressed with the raised dot (·). Confusing at first, but not too difficult once you get the hang of it.
Commas And Periods
Few marks are as important as the comma and the period. In English, they indicate where one thought trails off or requires a slight pause (a comma), or where it stops altogether (a period). This doesn’t always hold true in the languages of the world. For example, Armenian uses a colon (:) symbol instead of a period to indicate a full stop.
In character-based scripts, some of the punctuation marks we hold near and dear are not the same. The Japanese use small open circles to represent periods instead of a filled-in dot or point like you see at the end of this sentence. They also use them in lieu of question marks. And if that weren’t enough of a break from Western convention, their commas slant in the reverse direction, too! The usage of commas in Japanese is pretty liberal and freeform, sprinkled in where one would naturally pause in conversation, like in English.
One place where people often notice a discrepancy in the usage of commas and periods is in European versus American numbers. Americans use the comma (,) to separate whole numbers into more readable chunks every three digits starting from the back; so, for example, the number one thousand three hundred twenty-five is read as “1,325” in numerical shorthand. But this would confuse, say, the average German, who would interpret that same comma as a decimal point and think you’re referring to a number greater than one and smaller than two. Their version of one thousand three hundred twenty-five would be written as “1.325” instead.