The scribbles on the right are not just doodles, a badly drawn rough sea or an attempt by a 5-year-old to emulate grown-ups’ fascinating handwriting. A real adult has written a real word here: minimum.
Even if you had figured that out for yourself, you’ll agree it’s not easily legible. That’s due to a shortcoming in our alphabet: the similarity between hand-written i, n, u and m. In many words confusion is never far away, which is why monks, clerks and other writers have come up with all sorts of clever tricks. Continue reading
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
Throw your mind back to the very first time you tried your little hand at writing. With the unfamiliar pen between your fingers and your tongue between your lips, you gave of your best, but unless you were a calligraphic child prodigy, the result was, well, nothing to write home about. It looked shaky and straggly and, in a word, messy. Yet it didn’t stop your parents from being touched by your scribbles.
Call me weird, but that’s how I too felt earlier this week when I visited the Epigraphic Museum in Rome’s Baths of Diocletian. As its name and location suggest, it focuses on inscriptions from Antiquity, predominantly in Latin. Many of them look vaguely familiar: for the last five centuries or so, inscriptions in European and New World monuments have tended to emulate the Classical example. If you wonder what I’m talking about, open a new document in Word, choose the Times New Roman typeface and write a line in capitals. Continue reading
A lion. ‘Leo’ in Latin, not ‘deo’.
But for a silly mistake, I would have been a dinguist. You know, a dinguist – a specialist in dinguistics.
The mistake was not my own; it’s the old Romans what did it. And when I say old, I mean really old. Older even than Caesar, Cicero and Seneca, the authors who wrote the sort of Latin we are still somewhat familiar with – the classy, classical sort.
Before their Latin, there was Old Latin, and though it looked grammar-schoolish enough, it was different in many small ways. For instance, it had the word dingua for ‘tongue’ and ‘language’. Caesar, Cicero and Seneca would consider that old-fashioned; the Latin equivalent of Ye Olde Tea Shoppe. They would write lingua. And it’s in their footsteps that we follow every time we use the word linguistics. Continue reading