In English and many common languages nowadays, punctuation marks are used to introduce direct speech. This makes it possible to start direct speech without lexical clue, as in the second example here:

  1. Mary asked, "Could you come here for a minute?"
  2. "Could you come here for a minute?" asked Mary.

In (mostly ancient?) languages without punctuation, the second example would not contain any clue that direct speech starts, which presumably makes a text harder to narrate (as the narrator would need these clues to use different intonation or the like).

Biblical Hebrew did not have punctuation for a long time, and direct speech rarely occurs without marking. However, the marking is part of the sentence (i.e., pronounced when read out loud, as in example 1 above). It seems then that a language like this lacks freedom to describe dialogue creatively (and indeed, BH dialogue often feels boring to us with a lot of "and he said" — although a native might not have found this to be a problem).

Realising this I'm wondering if there are languages that commonly use direct speech without marking (either lexical, i.e. pronounced, or with punctuation) and if so how they deal with the problem that a narrator needs these clues.

  • This is very vulnerable to style and convention of course; the Modern English prose pursuit for every more synonyms to "he said", as an attempt to be "creative" is absurd to languages which use the quotation dash—and that's purely an artefact of (a) punctuation and (b) fashion (why should quotatives be creative at all?). My default assumption is that all languages that don't indicate direct speech segmentally indicate it suprasegmentally (i.e. intonation); writing isn't everything, after all. Commented Aug 25, 2018 at 2:05
  • @NickNicholas yes, but if you don't indicate it in writing how do you know when to change intonation (when reading out loud)?
    – Keelan
    Commented Aug 25, 2018 at 5:12
  • And yet, punctuation happened only three millennia after the invention of writing. It wasn't invented until the need was felt for it; in literature, writing was a crutch for oral memory for a pretty long time. Commented Aug 25, 2018 at 11:19
  • @NickNicholas I know that. The thing is that all ancient (no-punctuation) languages that I know of do not allow for the start of direct speech without "lexical" marking. I'm wondering if there are languages where direct speech can start without any marking, and how they would cope for this. Indeed, if a text is only used for memory but it still accompanies an oral tradition, this oral tradition could provide the clues for the reader (i.e., he would know by heart where direct speech starts). But I don't know of any languages where it works like this.
    – Keelan
    Commented Aug 25, 2018 at 11:52
  • linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/27878/… : "Arguably English is specially ambiguous because "that" is not required, so when we hear "He said I am a fool" it is not clear if the third person called himself a fool or the first person a fool." (@a-m-bittlingmayer) Commented Aug 25, 2018 at 13:21


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