Something sharp in that sock

Etymology is like chocolate: dispensable but irresistible. Words hopping from one language to the next, shape-shifting, gaining new meanings…

Take our sharp. Or rather skarpo, the word used by the Goths (a Germanic people who neither built cathedrals nor dyed their hair black) for ‘sharp thing’ or ‘pointy thing’. In the Early Middle Ages, this was borrowed into Italian, where scarpa came to mean ‘shoe’. After all, most shoes are somewhat pointy, and mediaeval fashion sometimes prescribed them very pointy indeed. A common alternative was the diminutive scarpetta, which somehow sounds even pointier.

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English – a public health hazard?

Schermafdruk 2020-05-30 10.24.28Might the incidence of Covid-19 in this place or that depend to some degree on the main language spoken there? A reader from Italy asked me this a few days ago. Being a polyglot, he had first come up with the idea himself; it was then reinforced by a Japanese video that has been making the rounds. This shows how the English aspirated /p/ sound causes an eruption of breath, potentially sending loads of viruses into the air in front of the speaker. So are some languages, including English, more conducive to infection than others?

Apparently, my correspondent is not the only one who’s been wondering about this. In John McWhorter’s most recent Lexicon Valley podcast, he addresses the same issue in response to questions from listeners.

Interestingly, even though John and I agree on the answer – which is, roughly, ‘no’ –, we approach the issue very differently. He points out that while, yes, Japan has been hit much less by the pandemic than the US and the UK, the pattern elsewhere in the world is not what you would expect on the basis of these linguistic differences. Spain has been severely affected, even though Spanish pronunciation doesn’t have any characteristics one would expect in a ‘contagious’ language. And in the Middle East, Iran has been an epicentre of Covid-19 while Iraq hasn’t, even though Iraqi Arabic would appear to be a much more effective spreader of viruses, given its inventory of phonemes.

My take on the question was as follows: ‘These linguistic differences might conceivably play a minor role. However, languages and the cultures in which they are spoken differ in many respects. Even if we only look at personal communication, I think there are differences in: typical loudness; typical amount of speech; typical physical distance between speakers; and typical frequency of touching each other.

And that’s without mentioning other differences between societies, for instance in time spent outdoors (which is safer) versus indoors (riskier), in average health, in willingness to heed governmental advice, in hand-washing habits, in availability of sanitation, in numbers of foreign visitors, in climate, in use of public transport, and so on and so forth.’

Of course I hope that all of you will stay healthy. But I think you can safely continue to speak English, if that’s what you do. No need to learn Japanese.

An m hidden in plain sight

M.jpgYou know how things can stare you in the face and you still somehow manage to overlook them? As in that famous video where a big guy in a gorilla outfit escapes most viewers’ attention?

It’s happened to me in my book Babel, in chapter 8. The story is about what it actually means when we say that ‘Russian, like English and Latin, belongs to the Indo-European family’. How does this show in the actual language? The chapter includes a little table of verbal endings, including the first person singular, which is a dead give-away of Russian being Indo-European: Latin has -o or -m, Russian has -u or -m (the latter now rare, but common in the Slavic family). Germanic languages no longer have those particular endings, though Old German still had -o.

But the thing is: Germanic languages do still have that ending. Or rather, one does, in one verb. That may sound like a tiny remnant, but it’s some obscure word in some far-flung Faroese island dialect. Quite the contrary, I;m referring to the most common verb in the largest Germanic language, as big a verbal gorilla as one could wish for: it’s English’s to be. First person singular, present tense: am, more often than not reduced to its erstwhile ending, m.

In Proto-Indo-European the form was esmi, which begat Proto-Germanic izm(i), which begat Old English eom, which begat am. So there: it’s a direct cognate of the Latin and Russian words for ‘am’, which are sum and (the now archaic) jesm’.


Thanks to John McWhorter for pointing out the origin of am’s m-ending in his latest Lexicon Valley podcast.

5+1 on both sides of the Channel

5-1English verbs are strange, for a European language. In the present tense, nearly all forms are the same: I see, you see, we see, you (guys) see and they see. But just when you start thinking that the present tense is a conjugation-free zone, you get the shock of she·he·it sees, with an s tacked on. Not much of a surprise perhaps, because it’s a pretty basic fact about English grammar, but still: if you didn’t know it already, you wouldn’t see it coming.

This type of conjugation is exceptional. Most European languages are much more ornate in this department – check out Spanish or Czech, if you want to see more typical examples. The Scandinavian languages, on the other hand, so close to English in several ways, have gone one better. In Danish, for instance, all six forms are identical: the verb se (see) conjugates, or rather doesn’t, as jeg ser, du ser, hun·han ser, vi ser, I ser, de ser. Continue reading

Ptime in ptranslation

Both minute and second owe their existence as words to one famous book from Classical Antiquity. Yet their etymologies are a surprising mix, with not only Greek and Latin but also Arabic ingredients. How come?


A 16th-century engraving of Ptolemy

Let’s start with the book: it’s called the Almagest and was written in the second century CE by the mathematician and astronomer Claudius Ptolemy, a Greek in Roman Egypt. In it, he did what scholars had been doing for ages: divide the circle into 360 degrees, each degree into sixty minutes and each minute into sixty seconds.* But ‘minute’ and ‘second’ were not the words he used, for they did not yet exist. What he wrote was ‘first sixtieth’ (prota heksēkosta) and ‘second sixtieth’ (deutera heksēkosta), which in a freer translation might come out as ‘one sixtieth of the first order’ and ‘one sixtieth of the second order’. Continue reading

One (1)

diceIt’s not just the loneliest number, it is also one hell of a numeral: one. Native speakers may disagree, of course – native speakers know everything about there they’re their English except how to spell it – but one holds many surprises for those who try to master the language later in life, such as myself.

What’s so hard about one, you wonder? All the different uses, that’s what, and all the different non-uses as well. Continue reading