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I'm always shocked when I see a foreign text with a simple question mark in it.

Spanish has the upside down question mark to offset a question right from the outset.

  • Are Question Marks Universal?
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  • 1
    Classical Greek uses a semicolon. Lewis Thomas remarks on that in his essay "Notes On Punctuation". – jlawler Jul 22 '15 at 14:14
  • Modern Greek uses it as well. – Midas Jul 23 '15 at 7:59
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Almost, but not absolutely. I'm aware about at least one counter-example:

In Thai language, question sentence is formed by using question particle, ไหม [mǎj] (colloquially, มั้ย with the same pronunciation). Just like English form, "…, is it not?"

คุณเข้าใจไหม [kʰun kʰâw tɕaj mǎj] = Do you understand?
ประเทศไทยร้อนไหม [pràʔ tʰêːt tʰaj rɔ́ːn mǎj] = Is Thailand [weather] hot?

There are also other colloquial question particles, but in neither case question mark is required.
Nevertheless, some people would like using question marks to "stylize" their conversations.


Also, Wikipedia article contains a list of alternative forms of question marks in Armenian, Greek, Arabic, and Mandarin Chinese languages.

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  • Actually, the Chinese question mark is just the symbol at full width, and it looks like this: ? – WavesWashSands Jul 24 '15 at 11:31
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Question marks are not universal as is not any punctuation or orthography. In fact, the term universal is generally applied to features of language that arise 'organically' - that is without specific intervention (although the level of intervention in all language change is probably greater than the word 'organic' implies). So it makes no sense to ask is the traffic stop sign universal because it emerged through an explicit policy context. However, you can ask things like 'is the traffic stop sign' used the same way in all countries, do drivers interpret in the same way?

The same goes for the question mark. While its spread and adoption are not a result of an international legislative process, its use is a result of the spread of Latin orthography in the colonial era - as is the whole idea of punctuation. As a result some marking of questions (and ends of sentences, etc.) has now entered many orthographies including the non-Latin ones (like Chinese) that never previously had them. Of course, we know that punctuation (or even spaces between words) did not arise naturally in all orthographies and it took a good thousand years for them to appear in Latin and Greek alphabetic writing and another half a millennium to achieve some sort of standardization.

In every language that uses orthography with punctuation (and it has probably made inroads - at least to some degree - to most orthographies now), the same punctuation marks will be used in slightly different contexts and with slightly different meanings and not all punctuation marks will be used (see answers to this question on Quora). Each language will develop conventions and standards for how the punctuation marks should be used and these will differ across languages or even styles/genres within languages.

The actual form of the question mark is obviously not universal at all. You already mentioned Spanish but Greek uses the semi-colon (;) (or something very similar to it) to mark questions. You can see here for more characters.

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