This is a question I hear often from Spanish students (and also from curious people…):
Why is there an upside down question mark before questions in Spanish?
Well, it’s pretty useful, most of the times.
Let’s think for a moment why do we use punctuation marks in general. In the past, there were texts written without any punctuation whatsoever. Reading was a hard task reserved only for the intellectual elite.
As the years passed, punctuation marks were gradually introduced in order to make it easier for the reader to understand the texts, which were also becoming more complex.
In Spain, for many years, the question mark was used the same way it is used today in most languages, just at the end of a question, in order to make clear to the reader that there was a question. Then, in 1754, the Real Academia decided that an inverted question mark should also be used at the beginning of the question. For many decades, this decision was not applied. But with the strenghtening of the Spanish state, the compulsory use of the question mark at the beginning of a question became more and more common.
Now, in a practical level, we have to consider that in Spanish, it is possible to ask a question with the same words and the same order we use to make a statement. For example:
Comes pan. (You eat bread.) ¿Comes pan? (Do yo eat bread?)
So this is very useful, specially in long sentences, where the actual question appears in the middle. For example:
Tras considerar todos los hechos presentados a esta corte, ¿permaneceremos indiferentes a la llamada de la justicia? (After considering all the facts presented to this court, will we remain indifferent to the call of justice?)
To be precise, it is actually possible to add a question word, like “acaso” (Tras considerar todos los hechos presentados a esta corte, ¿acaso permaneceremos indiferentes a la llamada de la justicia?), in which case the beginning of the question would be clear without the first question mark. However, this is pretty much a literary style nowadays, not commonly used in everyday language.
That brings us to the fact that in the era of facebook, twitter and whatsapp, the use of the beginning question mark is being ignored literally millions of times every day by the majority of Spanish speakers around the world. It’s just easier and faster, specially when you have to tap and hold an extra key in order to get it. It’s pretty annoying sometimes.
But isn’t a similar phenomenon happening in English and other languages? How many times have we seen messages like: “i dont care” or “lets do it”?
The Internet and mobile devices are changing the way we write, and it is possible that the leading question and exclamation marks in Spanish will be among the first official victims.
And a final thought: since in English, and in many other languages, questions are expressed in a particular, different phrasing, why do we keep using the question mark at the end of the question (?). Punctuation marks are supposed to make the reading process easier, but do we still need them (?).
What do you think. Or should I write ¿what do yo think?