This week, Norbert in Nerdalert, Wisconsin asks: Alfredo, I sometimes have trouble sleeping at night when I think of all the complicated rules of proper punctuation. I worry about whether the period goes in or out of the parenthesis and why we no longer add two spaces after ending a sentence. But I noticed that you don’t seem to fear these things. Why Alfredo?
Navigating the tumultuous punctuation and grammatical quagmire of the 21st century can be difficult. You ask why I am not up at night worried about it? You know why. Yes…you do: Alfredo is not a nerd. Alfredo is confident, certain, and charmingly handsome. And I, Alfredo, know a little something about the history of punctuation that helps me sleep a little better than most.
The Castro regime has helped suppress the fact that Cubans lead the world in advanced punctuation. I am talking about the little upside down question mark that Cubans put BEFORE a sentence.
For those of you who have not had the great benefit of reading Spanish, this will be new. However, some of my readers have had the blessing of reading the mother tongue that Adam and Eve spoke before the fall (What, you thought they spoke a form of English?).
Cubans invented the inverted question mark to warn the reader of an upcoming query. Let me show you an example of its usefulness and then I will give you its history.
Please read this common English sentence:
The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog?
Ah! You expected a sentence and Alfredo surprised you at the end by adding a question mark. You found yourself scrambling to add a little up-talk in your voice at the end to make it appear as if you knew it was a question all along. But you didn’t! Now read it again, this time being forewarned by the inverted question mark and note the difference.
¿The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog?
You see?! When you read it the first time you were dull, slow, and boorish. And you had circles under your eyes. But when you knew the question was coming, you sat straighter in your chair, took a deep breath, smiled a little, and properly emphasized the five points of query inflection inherent in that sentence. In short, you were brilliant! And what made the difference? The flipiripi.
Before you go and pronounce this the wrong way: It is NOT pronounced “flip-ah-RIP-e”! The closest correct pronunciation is “flee-pee-REE-pee”. And its history is, like many things, tied to the history of the great Cuban people.
In 1506, one of Cuba’s earliest settlers sent Queen Isabela of Spain a note included in a shipment of plunder stolen from the natives. His name was Don Justo Tamayo, and he decided to ask about the Queen’s health. This was in the early days of punctuation and he intended to ask if she felt ok. However the flipiripi had not been invented, and the Queen’s aides read the note to her as “you feel good”.
King Ferdinand overheard this while he took the royal bath and immediately dispatched a ship to bring back Don Justo’s head. Don Justo heard about this in advance and caught the next boat off of Cuba. It turns out that the ship that Don Justo Tamayo jumped on was commanded by Hernan Cortez, who was on his way to explore Mexico’s coast.
Don Justo was so troubled at having to leave his beautiful homeland, that upon arriving in Mexico he burned all of Cortez’s ships, and by 1512, he had conquered the whole of Mexico and slaughtered its inhabitants. (So I see, Norberto, why you are worried about improper punctuation.)
As a result of this unfortunate misunderstanding, the Crown decided upon a compromise. All future questions from Cuba to Spain should always be preceded by a question mark laying horizontal on the sentence. The flat-laying question mark was meant to demonstrate that Cubans were asking the question humbly, prone and prostrate before the King and Queen. Well, those settlers hadn’t been on the island long, but the flame of Cuban independence had started to flicker in their hearts and there was no way that they were going to lower themselves before Spain for long.
Don Pepe Bayamo, the governor of Cuba, sent a message back to Ferdinand and Isabela saying that the people of Cuba would not lie down. They would “rather be flipiripied upside down than to humble themselves”. So the “flipped” upside down question mark became the symbol of Cuban independence and only 400 years later in 1902 the battle was won! Viva Cuba Libre!
Alfredo is happy to share this historic moment with you. Maybe next time we can talk about other punctuation issues. Like why Fidel’s name should always be immediately preceded by %#@!#$$@!
You can leave your question and death threats for Alfredo in the comments.