22 October 2009

Marks of Irony and Sarcasm

At the recent gathering of children’s-book bloggers in Washington, I understand that mention was made of my past reports on humanity’s long quest to typographically signal sarcasm or irony. Though the internet has exacerbated this need, I’ve noted that some English writers discussed it 200 years ago. And I once suggested that the backslant could work as italics does, except by signaling reversal instead of emphasis.

Alas, adding a backslant style to every font and getting the new versions installed on every computer would be a lot of work, and we’d still have to teach people what the new letterforms mean. The same problems stymie the invention of new punctuation, such as Choz Cunningham’s 2006 proposal at Typophile of a mark called “the snark,” which looks like an exclamation point that’s given up and laid down.

People have therefore sought to popularize sarcastic uses of punctuation marks that are already on the standard English keyboards but of little use. For example, at my latter posting, an anonymous commenter replied:

We need to use the TILDE!
it works perfectly
~i'm so smart~
and we don't use it for anything but decoration anyway
However, a peek behind the tilde entry on Wikipedia shows that this usage is still evolving. The first suggestion that anyone was using the tilde to indicate irony appeared there in February 2008, and that contributor suggested it should appear at the end of a sentence, not around a statement.

A much older suggestion, through Wikipedia, starts with the seventeenth-century English printer Henry Denham’s mark to signal a rhetorical question:
How do you like them apples؟
Denham called this a percontation mark. It soon fell into abeyance.

In 1899, The Bookman’s “Literary Paris” columnist Adolphe Cohn reported to his American readers:
A new writer, who is much talked of just now, is M. Alcanter de Brahm. He has published a book, L’Ostensoir des Ironies, intended to demonstrate that the reader of modern books has to be told when the author intends to be ironical and when not, and he therefore advocates the creation of a new punctuation mark, the point d’ironie.
The new writer was actually an anagrammatic pseudonym of a minor French poet named Marcel Bernhardt. He suggested using a question mark reversed in some way. Wikipedia states it was a horizontal reversal producing a variation on the backwards question mark above. Wayne C. Booth’s A Rhetoric of Irony (1974) says Bernhardt/de Brahm suggested using the upside-down question mark from Spanish—
So we can see what a splash the idea made¿
Only one language seems to have a typographic signal of reverse meaning already in widespread use, and I learned of it through a familiar but unexpected source. Back in 2005, Neil Gaiman wrote on his blog:
(If I say “in my copious spare time”, can we all agree that it should be read as if someone had actually invented the sarcasm mark as a unit of punctuation, and that “in my copious spare time” can be assumed to be inside sarcasm marks?)
And then this month he added:
The last time I posted here about the lack of sarcasm marks in punctuation, people wrote in to tell me that there are Ethiopian languages that actually have a written sarcasm mark, intended to show the world that the person writing means the opposite of what he says. So if anyone is translating this blog into Ethiopian, you’ll need to put sarcasm marks around that bit of yesterday's post.
Language Log has also taken note of that punctuation mark, which is known as Temherte Slaq. It reports, “The Unicode representation of the punctuation mark is evidently under debate among Ethiopian scholars.”

And what is the crux of that debate? A paper titled “A Roadmap to the Extension of the Ethiopic Writing System Standard Under Unicode and ISO-10646,” by Asteraye Tsigie, Berhanu Beyene, Daniel Aberra, and Daniel Yacob, states:
Graphically indistinguishable from U+00A1, Temherte Slaq differs in semantic use in Ethiopia. Temherte Slaq will come at the end of a sentence (vs at the beginning in Spanish use) and is used to indicate an unreal phrase, often sarcastical in editorial cartoons. Temherte Slaq is also important in children’s literature and in poetic use. Debate is needed among Ethiopian scholars to determine if inverted exclamation mark is acceptable.
In other words, even though experts agree the Temherte Slaq is “graphically indistinguishable” from a punctuation mark already in use, some insist it deserves its own unique coding.
And that wouldn’t delay the worldwide adoption of the Temherte Slaq at all¡

1 comment:

Joan-S said...

I know the infrastructure would be tough, but I'm going to have to agree with your previous post and throw my vote in for the back slant. It's perfect for the purpose, and could be called ironics: as in bold, italics, and ironics.