4 Big Questions About Questions


Here, the most meta of queries finally get their due.

1. Who invented FAQs?

The Frequently Asked Questions format has existed for a while, just not by that name. (The Four Questions of Passover have been in the Talmud since around the 4th century.) Today’s popular FAQ format actually began at NASA. In 1983, Eugene Miya was tired of seeing the same old questions posed by new members of a pre–World Wide Web newsgroup. The excessive questions took up space on the mailing list’s servers and flooded users’ inboxes. To correct it, Miya started posting a monthly Frequently Asked Questions list to the group, and thus, the FAQ was born.

2. Who asked the first question?

Believe it or not, someone’s taken a crack at answering this: Joseph Jordania, an Australian-Georgian ethnomusicologist and the author of Who Asked the First Question? The Origins of Human Choral Singing, Intelligence, Language and Speech. He proposes that the first question was asked by the first human being, because—as he explains it—the ability to ask a question was a critical evolutionary leap in distinguishing hominids from their ancestors. So we can't say who, exactly, but that individual gets credit for kicking off the entire human species.

3. Do other species ask questions?

Apes have understood and answered questions humans have asked in studies, but despite their sense of curiosity, they don’t ask questions themselves. “Chimpanzees in the wild have vocalization that has elements of questioning behavior,” Jordania writes. But aside from call-and-response dynamics, questioning is distinctly human.

4. Who came up with the question mark?

Linguists generally credit British scholar Alcuin of York with the first question mark, which was a tilde over a Roman dot that was meant to help with reading inflection. But in 2011, Cambridge researcher and manuscript expert Chip Coakley discovered the earliest documented instance of a question-indicating mark. The symbol, known as a “zagwa elaya”—which looks like a colon— was in a 5th-century Syriac text following what was clearly a question.