24/06/2009

A New Linguistic Phenomenon?

It is not uncommon for words to change their meaning. But I had never heard of punctuation marks changing their meaning. This is currently happening in German-speaking countries. As in English, inverted commas have always been used to denote a) a quotation or b) the writer distancing him-/herself from an expression, which might be because i) the author is not that happy with the metaphor s/he managed to come up with or ii) s/he wants to denote that the term used is deemed appropriate by others but not him/her ("Yeah, he 'works' 60 hours a week, but his 'work' actually consists of sitting in front of a computer.").

Now we see inverted commas used in a new way. A sign outside a flower shop near my place says:
Bitte "keine" Selbstbedienung!

["No" self-service, please!]
Here, and in many other places, inverted commas are used to denote emphasis. In the example, the co-existence of this usage with usage ii) above makes the message a little more ambiguous than was presumably intended. The coexistence of these two usages can also lead to outright unintentionally comic messages, for example when
"Frische" Fische

["Fresh" Fish]
are advertised.

This development is a bit puzzling, as there are already well-established means of emphasizing, such as underlining. If I were in a gloomy mood, I could develop this into an essay about how SHOUTING, in its various forms, is all too common in this society, but I won't.

If anyone knows of other cases of punctuation marks changing their meaning, please let me know. Extra points for knowing a technical term that describes this.

6 comments:

Acilius said...

The use of quotation marks as indicators of emphasis has been quite common in English for some years now. It is sometimes lamented as an Americanism, but I've seen it quite a few times in Britain as well. I don't know if it is a usage that has migrated to Germany from the English-speaking world or if it has developed separately.

LemmusLemmus said...

That's interesting because a) I had never come across it in English writing* and b) the last notable change in German grammar** was adding an apostrophe before the final "s" in words that take the genitive (e.g., new/false: "Peter's Haus", old/correct: "Peters Haus") and I'm near-certain that was due to the influence of English, the only foreign language pretty much all lesser educated Germans know to a noteworthy degree.

Can we blame the internet?

*which is probably because my reading habits are too high-brow. Even the blogs I read bother with punctuation and stuff. I haven't physically been to the English-speaking world in years.

**as used by the less educated. It's still officially wrong and will remain so for quite a while.

Acilius said...

Oh, it's officially wrong in English as well. One never encounters it in edited text. But it is very common in unedited text. The most visible examples are hand-lettered signs in shops.

Anonymous said...

http://www.unnecessaryquotes.com/

LemmusLemmus said...

Thanks, anon. This page was bound to exist, wasn't it? I'll see whether I can google up something similar with German examples.

pj said...

I'm not sure I'm aware of quotation marks being used for emphasis in British English. Obviously the Grocer's apostrophe is so widespread that it is pretty much entrenched in certain parts of the population (they're still wrong though).