Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Best Punctuation Mark

Why do foreign languages have it all over English? English is supposed to be the greatest, most malleable, absorbent language in the world (although I guess when I put it that way, it makes it sound like English is just a new kind of paper towel.) English, like America, is supposed to be a melting pot of words and ideas and marks that takes the highest parts of other languages and molds them into something phenomenal.

Look how well that worked for America, though: from the best and brightest that the rest of the world has to offer, from thousands of years of culture brought here by hundreds of years of immigration and new ideas and rewarding hard work and innovation, from all that, America has come up with: potato chips and reality TV. That's the sum and substance of our culture right now. We took all that brilliance, deep-fried it, and sat back to watch has-beens grope skanky girls. Plus, I'm not even sure that the US invented the reality show; I think maybe it came from England.

Likewise with English, which I think also came from England (because it would be too coincidental otherwise, wouldn't it?) English is supposedly expressive and can adopt other languages and we have 713 different words for love and all that, and English is made up of other languages that went before it and frequently steals from other cultures, and yet English boils down to dude and cool. Or, worse, it boils down to abbreviations and people being too lazy to know how to spell and not capitalizing things and then just making up baby names because they sound good.

Foreign languages don't do that. They don't pretend to be all grandiose and the pinnacle of this or the high point of that, and then secretly spend all their time coming up with new words to describe how a laptop crashed. They just go around having lyrical quality and easy-to-understand grammatical structures and songs that sound better in them and, as it turns out, great punctuation marks.

Here are the English language punctuation marks (source: my computer keyboard): ! , . ? ; : . (That period at the end of the sentence is both an example of the punctuation marks and the period at the end of the sentence. Don't accuse periods of not carrying their load.)

English punctuation marks are so boring that we used the advent of computers to create additional punctuation marks that we now claim as our own, things like "@", or even "emoticons," (one of which I've even created) , all of which exist only because we can't stand the punctuation that we have.

It's our own fault, really; as we get worse and worse with language, as we regress more and more into simply grunting or whatever it is we'll eventually do to communicate because we've given up on grammatical rules and every individual clique has its own incomprehensible slang, we toss out perfectly good punctuation marks... like ampersand (&), which now is used solely to denote something old-timey: Barnes & Noble, for example, uses the ampersand because they would really prefer that you think of them as a little, old-timey bookshop on main street rather than a megacorporation that is so rich is could buy your soul and sell it on the discount rack just for the heck of it.

Meanwhile, other languages hold on to their cool punctuation marks. Germans are loving their umlauts, and the French have their accent symbols, and some culture, I'm sure, has the "schwa."
What is the "schwa," anyway? Is it punctuation? Or some kind of mutant letter that English rejected? I get the feeling that the schwa was explained in school but that I missed it, as I missed a lot in school, and I get the feeling, too, that my life is maybe a little poorer for that.

There is, it turns out, a "Schwa Restaurant" that claims it's about more than food, it's about a state of mind, the kind of 'state of mind' that has to note that it accepts Visa and Mastercard. I'm not sure what you'd be paying for. I just looked at their "three course menu" and the menu begins with the word "amuse," which I don't think is a food at all, and contains the words "cobia" and "chimay" and "galangal." I don't know what those are, but I bet a celebrity will in the next month name his or her child "Cobia Galangal." I don't think it would amuse me to pay $55 for things I don't understand.

Then there's Spanish, which is, frankly, overloaded with punctuation marks. They've got all the ones from English, plus they use accents, plus they have the tielde and they have The Best Punctuation Mark, which is this:


I'm not sure what that's called. To try to find out, I even did more research than usual, both googling "¿ " (and getting no results) and asking someone I knew who speaks Spanish as her native language. She said it doesn't have a name, so as a result of that investigation, It seems that "¿" either (a) is not called anything, or (b) it does not exist.

I'm going to go with: it exists but has no name, because I need it to exist so I can say it's The Best. Here's why "¿" is The Best Punctuation Mark: because it does its job even before you can react.

I'll explain: Let's say you're going to ask a question, and you're speaking English or French or some other language. You ask the question, and then tack on your punctuation, the question mark: ?. The problem with that is the question mark does not mark its question until the end, so nobody knows it's a question until you get to the end, which makes a difference in how you intepret it.

Consider this sentence:

You spent 17 hours watching How I Met Your Mother re-runs

Until it's marked, you don't know what the point of that sentence is. It could be a simple statement of fact that is not in any way going to get you in trouble for having the house a mess and not, technically, knowing where both of your twins are:

You spent 17 hours watching How I Met Your Mother re-runs.

In which case, I'm fine. But it could be a question, raising the possibility that there is an answer to follow and I won't like that answer and may want to very quickly figure out which door which twin got out of:

You spent 17 hours watching How I Met Your Mother re-runs?

But how am I supposed to know that before the end of the sentence? How can I prepare for what's going to follow?

That's where "¿" comes in. Put good old "¿ " in there, and I know right up front that I'd better shove the Cheeto bag under the couch and get moving:

¿ You spent 17 hours watching How I Met Your Mother re-runs?

See? Much much better, and especially so because not only does ¿ tell you up front that you're running into a question, but it actually makes you think questioningly, right off the bat, because placing it at the beginning of a sentence makes the first thought about that sentence be something like hey, this thing is upside down, or am I upside down and resulting in having to look out the window to determine the exact nature of the reader to the rest of the universe; that disorientation puts the reader in the right frame of mind to then absorb the full impact of the question.

For doing its job so exceedingly well, then, I award "¿ " the title of The Best Punctuation Mark.

Also, if you ever watched Schoolhouse Rock and thought "That's not so hard, writing educational songs that are fun and well-done," well, watch this and re-think that stance:

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1 comment:

Flug Los Angeles said...

Great: "A woman without her man is nothing" Lol:) Great