7 awesome non-English punctuation symbols you need

7 Mar


Last year, Idibon’s CEO, Robert Munro, made the bold statement that “Unicode was the most sophisticated visualization framework, ever.” (Slides and more: http://idibon.com/idibon-at-strata/).

With visual conventions refined over millennia, seamless support across hundreds of cultural variations, rendering across several orders of magnitude of size, and supported by almost every device, it is an easy argument to make. Being able to read different scripts on our devices is now so seamless, that it is easy to forget that human beings made this.

Punctuation is one of the more interesting and complicated parts of language. Punctuation doesn’t just organize writing, it’s also expressive—like when the simple period/full stop in English indicates a writer is peeved.

One of the great things about Unicode is that it creates a predictable mapping for letters, numbers, symbols, and all sorts of characters. In this post, we’ll introduce you to some of our favorite punctuation marks. Whatever language you type in, start sprinkling these in.

1. The Sinhala kunddalyia


There are over 16 million speakers of Sinhala but this is really a character from old texts that is out of use. In earlier times, all the words and clauses were written inonecontinuouslineasifasentencewereasingleword. This is the symbol that was the “full stop” indicating the end of a sentence. In some texts, you’d find two in a row to end a paragraph/section or three in a row to indicate the end of a chapter. The name, kunddaliya, means ‘snake’.

Proposed use: “I am really done with this run-on sentence, I promise that everything I have to say about it I squeezed in here and now I’m really ready to change subjects or at least take a breath෴”

Unicode: U+0DF4

2. The Tibetan Bka-Shog yig mgo


In Bhutan, this is a “petition honorific”, so you put it at the beginning of administrative letters. There are a lot of incredible Tibetan punctuation marks like the yig mgo mdun ma, for marking the beginning of a text, ༄ or the end of paragraph rgya gram shad, which I think also is a star-scepter: ༒.

Proposed use: “༊I’m about to ask you for something and I’m being really formal and respectful.”

Unicode: U+0F0A

3. The Khmer koomoot


This marks the absolute end of a poem or religious text. You can see how it’s related to the less swirly Thai khomut, which is also marks ends, but sometimes just of chapters.

The translation of koomoot/koomuut is ‘cow’s urine’. I have nothing more to say about that.

Proposed use: “I am OUT៚”

Unicode: U+17DA

4. The N’Ko gbakurunen


N’Ko is one of the two main new writing systems to really take off in Africa. Solomana Kante invented the script in 1949 and it’s mostly used for Manden languages in West Africa.

This particular character represents three stones that hold a cooking pot over a fire and it’s used to end sections of text including paragraphs.

Proposed use: To mark the part of a recipe (or other instructions) where you can basically stop reading and wing it.

Unicode: U+07F7

5. The Samaritan surprise mark


Yes, we’re talking about Samaritan as in “The Good Samaritan”. Actually there are a bunch of symbols we should be importing from Samaritan (which is probably used by only about 700 people today). This particular mark, the atmaau, is the same as the symbol for marking prayer, except with the lower basketball. Take a look at the punctuation part of this list of Samaritan characters in Unicode: ‘surprise’, ‘outburst’, ‘shouting’, ‘restraint’, ‘submissiveness’. Doesn’t the semicolon seem boring now?

Proposed use: “Surprise!”

Unicode: U+0834

6. The Syriac Harklean obelus


First, let’s talk about the word obelus: it comes from an Ancient Greek word for pointy things—the same word that gives us obelisk for describing big pillars. What we know as our division sign, ÷, is an obelus. But the very first examples of obeli were used to mark passages in ancient manuscripts that were suspected of being corrupted or were otherwise problematic.

This particular symbol is associated with a translation of the New Testament from Greek to Aramaic in 616 AD. The guy who did that translation was Thomas of Harqel, which is where Harklean comes from. His translation included 5 books that had been disputed, including the Book of Revelation. And this symbol pointed to notes in the margins.

Proposed use: Mark a iffy statement (and/or “I dispute your ‘revelation'”).

Unicode: U+070B

7. The Myanmar “completed”


This is called “completed”, but it’s really a literary subordinate marker like “so” or “because”. So instead of saying because yolo, you can just say: ၍ yolo.

(Also here’s our post on the new syntax of “because X”.)

Proposed new meaning: I’m about to give you a reason.

Unicode: U+104D

Fonts to download

If you have a relatively new operating system, you probably have access to Sinhala and Tibetan by default, but here’s more info on them. You may also have Khmer, but it may be too tiny to read, here’s a bunch of Khmer fonts. Here’s Myanmar.

It’s a bit harder to find easy-to-use instructions for Samaritan, Syriac, or N’Ko, so if you have better suggestions, please leave them in the comments!

– Tyler Schnoebelen (@TSchnoebelen)



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