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Wondering if any languages use words, particles, or other speakable markers to represent punctuation like periods, commas, hyphens, quotes, parentheses, question marks, exclamation marks, or potentially others (colons, etc.). For example, I think I may have read of a language (maybe Chinese) which uses a word to signify the sentence is a question, though not sure, and not sure how to search for that on the web. For example:

Do you have the time ka.

In this hypothetical language, that would make it possible to write a sentence without a question mark, since ka would represent a question signifier.

Or perhaps even:

Do you have the time ka

(No period necesssary woohoo!)

What about periods though, are there languages which represent those as words (perhaps even in sign language)?

I have the time, sir bop

In that case, no period necessary, since bop represents a spoken period to end a sentence (in this made up language).

Or even commas:

I have the time y sir bop

Or parentheses:

I am not sure (based on my experience) if this is true or not bop

Would become:

I am not sure ping based on my experience pong if this is true or not bop

I guess in English we kind of sometimes do this when speaking in "quotes":

I am not saying you are quote-unquote mean all time.

So that's a start perhaps. But what about across languages, do there exist languages (spoken or visual like sign language) which have all punctuation encoded in words, or can we find examples of every case listed above, where the language has at least one of these features encoded in a word? If so, what is an example of all 7 or 8 or so punctuation markers, encoded as a spoken word?

If there are no languages with some/all these features, why not in theory?

I guess you could say in Spanish you represent hyphenated adjectives with de, but not 100% sure on that one.

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  • 5
    ka is the particle used for neutral yes/no questions in Japanese (Chinese uses 吗 ma), but there are lots of languages that have this one, since the distinction between a question and a statement is relevant to all language. Some languages have quote markers (Japanese has と to, Sanskrit has इति iti) – even English has like (as in “He was like, [quote]”), which is sort of a quote particle. I’ve never heard of a spoken language with words for punctuation like commas, full stops, dashes or parentheses, though. Pause and intonation handle that everywhere I know of. Dec 14, 2021 at 15:28
  • 4
    Um, er, well, like, uh...
    – Mark
    Dec 14, 2021 at 22:37
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    Lojban (not on-topic here but on Conlang.SX) has all 'punctuation', as well as the 'emotional attitude' of the speaker, encoded in (explicitly-pronounced) words.
    – user570286
    Dec 15, 2021 at 4:23
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    You've never heard a Canadian speak, eh?
    – Adám
    Dec 15, 2021 at 8:30
  • 3
    Victor Borge had a famous Phonetic Punctuation act
    – Barmar
    Dec 15, 2021 at 16:01

8 Answers 8

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Wondering if any languages use words, particles, or other speakable markers to represent punctuation like periods, commas, hyphens, quotes, parentheses, question marks, exclamation marks, or potentially others (colons, etc.).

It's the other way around, generally. Written language is a way of representing spoken language. So punctuation has arisen to represent things that are clear in speech: pauses, prosody, etc.

If you're listening to a spoken conversation, for example, how do you know if something is a question when you can't see a question mark? Or if something is emphatic when you can't see an exclamation point? These things tend to be fairly obvious thanks to prosody (rising pitch at the end of a question, falling pitch at the end of an emphatic clause)—and the punctuation marks were later invented to represent this prosody in writing.

That said, what English indicates with prosody, other languages can indicate in other ways. (And even English indicates certain types of questions with syntax as well as prosody.) Ancient Greek had a handful of different particles indicating emphasis, or joining clauses together in different ways. Latin and Mandarin both have explicit markers for yes/no questions. Hittite had an explicit marking for the start of a new clause, and Egyptian did too, though the Egyptian one was more restricted in its usage. There's a lot of cross-linguistic variation there.

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Latin has a spoken marker for yes-and-no questions, though it is not placed at the end of the question, but at the topic word: -ne

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    As does Finnish, whose marker is surprisingly close to the OP's example: Onko sinulla aikaa, IIRC. Dec 15, 2021 at 8:21
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    German, too! You simply add the suffix "weißt Du"! ;-) Dec 15, 2021 at 13:23
  • Turkish also has such a marker. Mongolian has two separate question markers, one for yes/no questions and one for other questions.
    – Jan
    Dec 15, 2021 at 17:02
  • @Peter A so-called W-Frage
    – Jan
    Dec 15, 2021 at 17:05
  • English also uses "isn't it?" for yes/no answers, specifically semi-rhetorical yes/no answers where you expect the other person to agree with you, which has been changed slightly to make "innit" a more general sentence ending in cultural/regional English slang. Japanese uses "desu ne?" in exactly the same way.
    – Graham
    Dec 17, 2021 at 9:45
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It's not so much that languages use particles to represent punctuation, but that some particles can perform the same function as punctuation. It is hard to imagine that this would not go hand in hand with prosodic cues in spoken language, though: interrogatives (with the question mark) often have rising intonation; imperatives (with the exclamation mark) often have falling intonation; and most kinds of punctuation are read with a pause of shorter or longer length. Once the prosodic cue is enough to determine the function in context, a particle expressing the same function would be a good candidate for phonological reduction for economy. This can explain the lack of generalized particles in this function, e.g. particles that appear at the end of a main clause no matter what.

Nevertheless, depending on the exact criteria there are many things that may be of interest to you:

  • quote .. unquote as a kind of explicit quotative / scare quoting in English, which you mentioned already.
  • Emphatic period, also in other languages (e.g. Dutch): I won't do it, period.
  • The semicolon has various spoken counterparts, it can for example be read as because in I didn't see him; he arrived after I left.
  • The colon as an introduction of direct speech has a spoken counterpart in some languages, like Biblical Hebrew, deriving from the verb say.

What is important to notice here is that punctuation has a function; it is not arbitrary. And this function must usually be expressed in spoken language as well, be it in words or in prosody. One common function of punctuation is the separation of clauses, which in spoken speech is frequently done with sentence connectives (and, but, so). These connectives are much more frequent in spoken language than in written language.

Furthermore, clause separation is psychologically necessary for both speaker and addressee. It is hard to imagine a language in which this function would not be reflected prosodically at all.

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  • How about with sign language.
    – Lance
    Dec 14, 2021 at 15:04
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    @LancePollard what makes you think this should work differently in sign language?
    – Keelan
    Dec 14, 2021 at 15:22
  • @Keelan For one thing, intonation/prosody can’t be used the same way in sign language as in spoken language, so alternative means of expressing some of the jobs intonation carry out could be quite relevant. Dec 14, 2021 at 17:16
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I know next to nothing about sign language, but the most ubiquitous punctuation is represented by pauses, not intonation patterns, and pauses can of course be signed.
    – Keelan
    Dec 14, 2021 at 18:30
  • Additionally to the paragraph of this answer about quote...unquote; , period; etc. there are next circumstances when all punctuation is saying a loud: the proclamation of the text to students; the reading a telegram a loud.
    – T1nts
    Dec 14, 2021 at 21:02
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Biblical Hebrew, which traditionally was written with very little punctuation, often uses what we call a word (usually translated to "and") but is actually a prefix (ו־ – Hebrew is right-to-left) to separate sentences (like our period) and clauses (like our comma), without having the connotation of binding together the two phrases. It often bothers me that translations begin an extraordinary number of sentences with "and…" (see e.g. the beginning of Genesis, where almost every verse is translated to begin with "And…") when it is quite clear to me that this isn't a conjunctive "and" but rather a sentence-separation "and".

Spoken French often fails to indicate questions with intonations, and there it is critical to begin a sentence with "Qu'est-ce" even though the correct translation would only be a sentence-final question mark:

Fr. ≈ Lit. Eng.
 Qu' ≈ What
 est- ≈ is
 ce ≈ it
 que ≈ what
 tu ≈ you
 fais ≈ do

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  • The second que might be better translated to "that (conjunction)"
    – iBug
    Dec 17, 2021 at 18:11
  • And, delightfully, Qu'est-ce que has reduced all the way down to one syllable /kɛsk/ in some dialects.
    – Andrew Ray
    Dec 17, 2021 at 20:40
  • @iBug Yes, but I wanted a consistent translation of "que".
    – Adám
    Dec 18, 2021 at 18:04
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For example, I think I may have read of a language (maybe Chinese) which uses a word to signify the sentence is a question

Absolutely, that word is 吗. It's pronounced ma.

  • 我给你一本书 means "I give you a book"
  • 我给你一本书吗 means "Am I giving you a book?"

Wondering if any languages use words, particles, or other speakable markers to represent punctuation like periods, commas, hyphens, quotes, parentheses, question marks, exclamation marks, or potentially others (colons, etc.).

If we include sign languages, then absolutely. Not really clause-final "punctuation" like commas, periods, colons, and whatever, but certainly where a punctuation mark has a discourse-level function, sign languages will usually have a specialized word that's similar in function.

For example, your English example "quote/unquote", can be translated as frameshifting in sign language. In ASL and BSL at least, frame shifting is "pronounced" by turning your torso this way or that, as if you're a different person and the thing you're saying isn't your own words.

Or, BSL has a construct that could be seen as a numbered list. It's literally translated as "Moving from (nothing) to number one:" "moving from number one to number two". Except it's pronounced in a single syllable.

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  • Adding to this answer, punctuations are something relatively new to Chinese, which used to write with minimal whitespace that separates "sentences" (or sometimes no separators at all). Particularly when written in right-to-left columns.
    – iBug
    Dec 17, 2021 at 18:13
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Expanding on @Janus Bahs Jacquet's comment:

Japanese has the following particles

  • ka - at the end of a sentence serves as spoken question mark
  • yo - at the end of a sentence serves as spoken exclamation mark
  • ya/to - serve as commas, "and" and "..." for (incomplete/complete) enumerations
  • te/to - mark quotes similar to quotation marks "te iu" (to say something) or "to omoshimasu" (to call something something)

There are some examples harder to translate

  • ha (pronounced "wa") - is used to mark a contrast in the subject of a sentence, similarly to underlining it or starting the sentence with "For (me, her, him, today's dinner, ...), ..." or "In contrast (I, he, she, today's dinner, ...), ...". Considering English, there's often a comma when starting sentences with a statement of contrasting context like that.
  • ga - similarly to "ha" marks the subject of a sentence, except there's no indication of contrast
  • ba (as in -nakereba) - actually translates to "if (... then)" but also separates two sentence parts like "if ..., then" so it implies the comma. If you switch parts of sentence around , then the translation to a comma (and only that) is more clear: The translation to a comma is more pronounced , if you switch the parts around.

TL;DR

Japanese has multiple examples for spoken punctuation, some of which include commas and especially discern different cases for why a comma would be used in western languages: enumerations, introducing context and separating if-then-clauses.

My Japanese is a bit rusty. Please excuse/correct any mistakes, if you're certain to know better. Also the list is probably incomplete. I only learned Japanese for 3-4 years in evening school about 10 years ago.

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  • -kereba should really just be -ba, and in fact I don’t think it should be included at all. Although it is in origin a sindhi variant of the particle は wa (Old Japanese *pa), it now functions as more of an inflectional suffix, like -masu. The first bit, けれ kere isn’t really anything, just the kateikei of i-adjectives, including the negative form ない nai, so you often see something ending in -(な)ければ -(na)kereba, but it’s just an inflection of the verb indicating the protasis in a conditional construction. Dec 16, 2021 at 16:35
  • Well, it was the last grammar construct I learned (10 years ago) and I only remembered the example "Hatarakunakereba, ikemasen." I included it, because it doesn't translate to anything except (maybe) the separation between sentence parts, which is done via comma in western languages. Alternatively, you can translate it to then, but then you have to turn the parts around.
    – NoAnswer
    Dec 16, 2021 at 16:53
  • It’s the opposite – you’d translate it to if, not then (the example means ‘if I don’t work, I won’t go’). Dec 16, 2021 at 16:55
  • Actually the example is an idiom meaning "You have to work." lit. "If (you) don't work, (that) doesn't go (anywhere)." The example in the answer is more clear on this.
    – NoAnswer
    Dec 16, 2021 at 16:57
  • Good point – I’m more familiar with the naru version, so I read it literally, but the underlying meaning is roughly the same; at any rate, the -ba corresponds to ‘if’, not ‘then’. Dec 16, 2021 at 16:59
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Russian has an interrogative particle ли (pronounced "lee"). When it is used it is placed after the part of the sentence which is being questioned. While use of ли is not required, it can be helpful for emphasis or to replace the question inflection which is absent in written communications. Some examples:

Есть - ли здесь какой нибудь мусор.

Is (?) there any kind of garbage here?

Не вы ли выключил котёл?

It wasn't you (?) by any chance who turned off the boiler?

Не это ли сказка?

Is this (?) not a fable?

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    "Не это ли сказка?" seems to mean something more like "Isn't this the fable?"
    – OmarL
    Dec 16, 2021 at 12:58
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The mid-twentieth century stand-up comedian Victor Borge developed what he called his Phonetic Punctuation skit in which English literature is recited with voiced sound effects to represent printed punctuation.

While Borge's system is obviously intended to be ridiculous-sounding and humorous to audiences, it can be interpreted as a legitimate English-based conlang with exactly the feature you ask about - spoken particles that represent punctuation. It is also evidence that your idea of expressing punctuation in speech is not a new one, but one that has been discussed for at least several decades.

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