Florencia F.C. Shanahan
The question mark serves to indicate, at the time of writing, that it is a question and that it is therefore to be read with interrogative intonation.
The exclamation reveals that one should raise one's voice and emphasize the phrase, in order to express surprise, amazement, joy, supplication, command, desire...
But what do the question marks and exclamation marks have in Spanish that make them so delightfully unique? They have a particularity, something that makes them absolutely unique!
Spanish is the only language in which the question marks and exclamation marks are double, that is, they are placed not only at the end of the sentence (as in English, French or German, to name just a few examples) but also at the beginning of it.
Only in Spanish do the symbols "¿" and "¡" exist, the signs that are used as an interrogation opening and at the beginning of an admiring phrase.
The history of these two signs, however, is old. The sign of admiration is already found in medieval Latin manuscripts and, according to the Royal Language Academy, we owe it to the Carolingians, the dynasty of French origin that dominated Western Europe between the 8th and 10th centuries.
But, in its origins, those two signs were used only at the end of sentences.
It took them a long time to start using them also at the opening of the interrogative and exclamatory sentences. In fact, it was only in the second edition of the Spelling of the Royal Academy of the Language, published in 1754, that the initial question mark made its irruption.
The academics debated at length about the matter and concluded that the final question mark was not enough, especially in certain long sentences. "Regarding the question mark, it was borne in mind that, in addition to the use it has at the end of the sentence, there are periods or long clauses in which the note that is put to the end is not enough and it is necessary from the beginning to indicate the meaning and questioning tone with which it should be read, so the Academy agrees that, in these cases, the same question mark is used, placing it on the first voice of the clause or period, thereby avoiding confusion and clarifying the meaning and tone.”
With this argument, on October 17, 1753 the academicians made a historical decision: there would also be opening question marks that would be placed at the beginning of the interrogative sentences, and that would be indicated by the same sign that already existed but inverted.
Long and short sentences
And so they picked it up in the Orthography of 1754, in which the use of the initial question mark was restricted to long sentences, while in the case of the short ones only the interrogative sign of closure was still used.
But when is a phrase short and when does it become long? Each one interpreted it a little at will, so in 1870 the Academy decided to put order to the matter and in the first edition of its spelling dictionary of the Castilian language it adopted the current criterion.
That is to say: that the initial question mark must be used in all, absolutely all the interrogative sentences, regardless of their extension.
"This is just another example of the traditional desire of Spanish Orthographers to represent the language in the most reliable and appropriate way to the pronunciation", underlines María José Folgado, expert in the history of grammar and linguistic historiography at the University of Valencia in his study, "The Question Marks in the Orthographies of Spanish".
From admiration to exclamation
Regarding the exclamation point, it arrived at the spelling treaties a little later than the interrogation, under the name of exclamation mark.
It is in the Dictionary of 1726 that the first orthographic reference is made to it: "It is called a note, which in the period means the effect of admiration, and it is written with an upside down ‘!’”.
Although already in the next edition of 1770, it is emphasized that "for some time it is customary to put this way in reverse (¡) before the voice in which this sense and tone begins, when the periods are long".
Its official recognition as a double sign came to the Dictionary in 1884. But it was only in 2014, in the 23rd edition of the Dictionary of the Royal Academy, that that sign was renamed as an “exclamation” point instead of “admiration”, after several authors stressed that admiration is only one of the feelings that can be expressed with this sign and that what was important was its exclamatory tone.
Only in Spanish
To this day, the Academy of Language is very clear about the correct use of question and exclamation marks. To begin with, he emphasizes that "The opening signs (!) are characteristic of Spanish and should not be suppressed by imitation of other languages in which only the sign of closure is placed".
The question and exclamation marks are written next to the first and last words of the period they frame, and separated by a space of the words that precede or follow them; but if what follows the closing sign is another punctuation mark, no space is left between the two.
After the closing signs any punctuation mark can be placed, except for a full stop since, as the Academy points out, when the interrogation or the exclamation ends a statement its closing signs are equivalent to a full stop.
The opening signs must be placed right where the question or exclamation begins, even if it does not correspond to the beginning of the statement. In that case, the interrogation or the exclamation starts with lowercase.
Source: Irene Hernández Velasco, Por qué el español es el único idioma que utiliza signos de interrogación (¿?) y admiración (¡!) dobles [Why is Spanish the only language that uses double interrogation and exclamation marks], September 2017. Available on-line: https://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-40643378