Tales of the world episode 42 – “Life between inverted commas”

A peculiar feature of BBC news draws attention because of the use of numerous quotation marks in its titles, prompting the question: “do we live life between inverted commas?”

After intense research, including the reading of a book on the practice, Why do we quote, by Ruth Finnegan, here is what Tales of the world has surmised:

Inverted commas have a long and quite surprising history: from marginal notes in ancient Greek and Roman texts, meant to attract attention to parts within a text, the diplés, the original quotation marks composed of two oblique lines meeting in the shape of an arrow came a long way to our days.

Their role changed with the appearance of printing and the evolution of authorship ant its intellectual property rights. During the Renaissance, up to the century 19th, quotation marks were used in literary works on and off, as authors liked to borrow and build upon each other, with no ill intentions. In a way, their gesture reminded of the fact that texts used in the olden times to be voiced aloud, recited or proclaimed, and not silently read. One does not stop in the middle of fiery speech to say, oh, and now, I am going to cite Chaucer, father of English literature, lest they want to miss their mark and finish with a whimper what started with a bang.

But all this change and transformation sends us straight to the heart of the matter: voice. Voice of an author, of the one who uses his words, in the particular case of this story, of the journalists and newsreels that take words and phrases in between quote marks to communicate…what exactly?  Here I am going to do a bit of my own quoting, from author Ruth Finnegan who wrote an entire book on the history of this practice:Quoting is used for originality or routine; for challenging authority or for lauding it; to control or to rebel; for excluding or including; for passive memorising or for brilliant extemporisation and creatively applied insight. As an act of speech quoting can achieve many things, from affirming or subverting or manipulating tradition to uplifting in sermon or imposing rigours on the young. Others’ words and voices can be called on to convey irony or humour, to situate writer, speaker and character in narrative, to carry the voice of the divine, to bond within a group or to distance from it”.Which of these happen when newsreels use their quote marks to report on current affairs, big and small, nowadays? When they title “Super rich looking for bling bling”, where Looking for bling bling is in between quotation marks and in an article on Lampedusa’s latest tragic delivery of migrants: “It’s horrific, like a cemetery, they are still bringing them out,” all of it between inverted commas. Are we supposed to smirk at the first one and get serious, maybe weep, at the second one? I feel like weeping about both. The choice is, of course, ours, because, from the newscaster’s point of view it’s all, neutrally and objectively quoted … reality.

As we continue to make use of citation marks sometimes to signify what’s real and sometimes to question it, how will we know when our journey down the rabbit whole is done?

With music from Leroy Anderson