Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Shady Characters

The publicity department of W.W. Norton & Company has kindly sent me a review copy of Keith Houston’s Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks. Since anyone can write a book on language where they say whatever they want and no one checks, it's great to read a book about language that takes the subject seriously.

Shady Characters is a history of some of the lesser-known punctuation marks: the pilcrow ¶, the interrobang ‽, the # (whatever it's called), the ampersand &, the @, the asterisk *, the dagger †, the hyphen ‑, the dash —, the manicule ☞, quotation marks “”, and various marks that have been proposed to indicate irony and sarcasm.

Giving us the history of all these marks is a tall order, and Houston treats it seriously. This book has 68 pages of endnotes. Houston is careful to separate evidence from speculation: if an origin is speculative, Houston is careful to say so. Punctuation is a subject that gets some people very worked up, but Houston is admirably objective.

I learned so much from this book. It is a wonderfully entertaining trip into the worlds of typography, programming, design, Tironian notes, 17th century novels, the history of footnotes, and so much more.

How is Gutenberg's bible, the first book made on a printing press, so painstakingly justified? Why did the interrobang fall out of use? Which Latin word is the @ symbol a probable abbreviation of? What is the etymology of pilcrow? Why does English use quotation marks and French use guillements «»? What is the earliest proposal for an irony mark? What is the connection between the asterisk and baseball? What is the connection between dash the mark, and dash the swearword? All of these questions are answered.

There is one point that Houston doesn't address, and which I wish he had addressed: the relationship between smart quotes “” and straight quotes "".

Houston's objectivity means that his animosity toward the hyphen-minus jumps out as weird. There are a group of hyphens and dashes of various sizes (the hyphen ‐, the en dash –, the em dash —, the quotation dash ―, and the figure dash ‒), each of which has a specific use, and the hyphen-minus (-) replaced all of them on the typewriter keyboard. Houston calls the hyphen-minus “an ugly chimera” and complains about “the havoc it has wreaked on grammar and typography for more than a century”. This is at odds with his normally even-handed style. There is no mention of how it has perhaps simplified matters by replacing a confusing group of marks!

There are numerous illustrations throughout the book, usually images of manuscripts that show early uses of the marks in question. Unfortunately, a lot of the time the size of the image is too small for me to make anything out. Close-ups on parts of the images would have been helpful.

My favourite part of this book comes in the chapter on the asterisk. The Alexandrian scholar Aristarchus of Samothrace devised a system of three symbols to mark up text. One was a straight horizontal line, called the obelus (from Greek ὀβελός "roasting spit"). The others were the diple (διπλῆ "double") and the asterisk (ἀστερίσκος "little star"), and together these three are known as Aristarchian symbols. This made me wish I'd written this book, so I could call it Asterisk and Obelus.

Houston has an article in the New Yorker where he succinctly writes on the history of #, ¶, &, ☞, and >.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Schleicher's Fable

Andrew Byrd reads Schleicher's Fable:

This is the reconstruction he uses:
h₂óu̯is h₁éḱu̯ōs-kʷe

h₂áu̯ei̯ h₁i̯osméi̯ h₂u̯l̥h₁náh₂ né h₁ést, só h₁éḱu̯oms derḱt. só gʷr̥hᵪúm u̯óǵʰom u̯eǵʰed; só méǵh₂m̥ bʰórom; só dʰǵʰémonm̥ h₂ṓḱu bʰered. h₂óu̯is h₁ékʷoi̯bʰi̯os u̯eu̯ked: “dʰǵʰémonm̥ spéḱi̯oh₂ h₁éḱu̯oms-kʷe h₂áǵeti, ḱḗr moi̯ agʰnutor”. h₁éḱu̯ōs tu u̯eu̯kond: “ḱludʰí, h₂ou̯ei̯! tód spéḱi̯omes, n̥sméi̯ agʰnutór ḱḗr: dʰǵʰémō, pótis, sē h₂áu̯i̯es h₂u̯l̥h₁náh₂ gʷʰérmom u̯éstrom u̯ept, h₂áu̯ibʰi̯os tu h₂u̯l̥h₁náh₂ né h₁esti. tód ḱeḱluu̯ṓs h₂óu̯is h₂aǵróm bʰuged.
The Sheep and the Horses

A sheep that had no wool saw horses, one of them pulling a heavy wagon, one carrying a big load, and one carrying a man quickly. The sheep said to the horses: "My heart pains me, seeing a man driving horses." The horses said: "Listen, sheep, our hearts pain us when we see this: a man, the master, makes the wool of the sheep into a warm garment for himself. And the sheep has no wool." Having heard this, the sheep fled into the plain.
I assume that the *hᵪ in *gʷr̥hᵪúm is an unspecified laryngeal. btw *gʷr̥hᵪúm is "heavy" as in guru and gravity.

Friday, 13 September 2013

sadhu and ithyphallic

Sanskrit साधु sādhu is "holy man, saint" and eariler "effective, correct, good", from sādh "to be accomplished or fulfilled or effected or settled, be successful, succeed".

The Proto-Indo-European root is *sē[i]dh-, sīdh-, sədh- "to strive for a goal". This became Greek ἰθύς ithus "straight". This was borrowed in ithyphallic, describing the straight phallus carried on Bacchic festivals. It's also used for the poetic metre used in Bacchic hymns.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013


The Toronto Catholic District School Board, on its English courses page, has an animated GIF showing the word "welcome" in 29 languages.

Here are some etymological notes on these words. It's interesting that so many terms for "welcome" can be literally translated as an adverb "well/good" + a verb "come".

Corrections are welcome.

The well of welcome used to be will - as in "desire". Old English wilcuma was "one whose coming is pleasing or desirable; an acceptable person or thing". This changed to well under the influence of Old French bien venu. A parallel change happened in Dutch welkom.

The French, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish words are derived from Latin bene "well" plus the past participle of ueniō “to come”. Latin ueniō is from Proto-Indo-European *gʷeh₂- "to go, to come" which is the source of English come.

The Persian/Urdu خوش آمديد ḵẖūś āmadīd is from Persian ḵẖūś "good, excellent" (as in cushy) and آمدن āmadan "to come" (I think).

The Pashto ښه راغلاست x̌ah rāğlāst is composed of x̌ah "good, pleasant" and I assume a form of راغلل rāğlal "to come".

The Czech vítame vás, Ukrainian вітаємо, radi vitati vas and Polish witamy all contain the element vita- which is found in verbs meaning "to greet". I don't think this is of PIE origin. vas "you" is cognate with Latin uōs from PIE *wōs-, an extended form of *yū- "you".

Russian and Serbian dobro means "good", from PIE *dhabh- "to fit together", and cognate with daft and deft. Old English gedæfte meant "mild, gentle", related to gedæftan "to make fit or ready, to prepare". daft went from meaning "mild, gentle" to "stupid, foolish", and deft retained the "fit" sense.

Serbian došli is a form of doći (доћи) "to come". Note that the Cyrillic spelling contains that well-known letter Ћ.

The Irish greeting fáilte was possibly (according to McBains, citing an article in Zeitschrift für vergleichende Sprachforschung) borrowed from Latin ualēte "be well/healthy", in other words "goodbye". The Latin is from PIE *wal- "to be strong" as in English wield.

The Greek καλώς ήλθατε kalōs ēlthate is also written καλώς ήρθατε kalōs ērthate. The first word means "well"; in Ancient Greek it meant "beautiful", and gave us words such as Callisto and kaleidoscope. It's from PIE *kal(i/u)- "beautiful" and is found in Old English hæleð and German Held "hero". The second word is the suppletive aorist formal second person plural form of έρχομαι erkhomai "to come". This is from PIE *h₁er- "to move, set in motion", which found its way into English as are.

The Armenian Բարի եկաք bari ekak' is composed of bari "good" possibly from PIE *bher- "to bear, carry" as in English bear and bring. I think, but I know nothing about Armenian so I'm probably wrong, that the second word is a form of եկ- ek-, which is a suppletive part of the conjugation of գամ gam "to come". ek- is apparently derived from PIE *gʷeh₂- as in English come (and gam is derived from PIE *ǵheh₁- as in English go).

The Sinhala sadarayen piliganimu is composed of සාදරයෙන් sādarayen "respectfully" and පිළිගනිමු piḷiganimu, a form of පිළිගන්නවා piḷigannavā "to accept". I assume the first word is related to Sanskrit सादर sādara "respectful".

The Tibetan tashi delek is a representation of the pronunciation of the greeting spelled བཀྲ་ཤིས་བདེ་ལེགས་ bkra shis bde legs. The connection between Tibetan spelling and pronunciation will forever elude me.

I believe the Tagalog maligayang pagbabalik literally means "happy homecoming".

Here are the languages in the order they appear (with some help from Omniglot):

Bienvenue - French
欢迎 - simplified Chinese (huānyíng)
Բարի եկաք - Western Armenian (bari ekak')
خوش آمديد - Persian/Urdu (ḵẖūś āmadīd)
Benvenuti - Italian
ДОБРО ПОЖАЛОВАТЬ - Russian (dobro požalovat')
Bem Vindos - Portuguese
நல்வரவு - Tamil (nalvaravu)
Dobro dosli - Serbian/Croatian - should be dobrodošli
Kihn chao ong - Vietnamese, should be kính chào ông
Kihn Chao ba - Vietnamese, should be kính chào bà
مرحباً - Arabic (marẖabā)
Vítame vás - Czech
Вітаємо - Ukrainian (vitajemo)
Willkommen - German
Καλώς ήλθατε - Greek (kalōs ēlthate)
Welkom - Dutch
Witamy - Polish
أھلاً و سھلاً - Arabic again ('āhlān wa sahlān)
Failte - Irish/Scots Gaelic (fáilte/fàilte)
tashi delek - Tibetan (བཀྲ་ཤིས་བདེ་ལེགས་ bkra shis bde legs)
Maligayang Pagbabalik - Tagalog
Radi vitati vas - Ukrainian again? (раді вітати Вас)
歡迎 - traditional Chinese (huānyíng)
Hwan-Yong Ham Nee Da - Korean (환영합니다)
sadarayen piliganimu - Sinhala (සාදරයෙන් පිළිගනිමු)
ښه راغلاست - Pashto (x̌ah rāğlāst?) (this used to be rendered incorrectly but it's been fixed)
Hoş geldiniz - Turkish
Bienvenidos - Spanish

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

queer and truss

Proto-Indo-European *terkʷ- "to twist" had a possible metathesized form twerk-, which became Proto-Germanic *þwerh-, becoming German quer (from earlier dwer) "transverse, oblique, crosswise, at right angles, obstructive, (of things) going wrong, (of a person) peculiar" etc. This was possibly borrowed as queer.

*þwerh- became Old Norse þvert "across", borrowed as thwart.

The form *torkʷ- became Latin torqueō "to twist", the stem being tors-/tort-. This possibly developed in Old French trusser "to trusse, tucke, packe up, to bind or gird up or in" (Cotgrave), borrowed into English as truss.

There was another PIE root *twerḱ- "to cut", which became Greek σάρξ sarks "flesh" and σαρκάζω sarkazō "to tear flesh like dogs", as in sarcasm. Etymologically, sarcophagus means "flesh-eater".