The under-used locative adverbs

A locative adverb tells you where something took place. Examples we all know and use commonly are ‘where’, ‘here’, and ‘there.’ Other such words can be constructed, like ‘homeward.’

But there are other locative adverbs that are so handy that it’s amazing that they aren’t used more often. ‘Where,’ ‘here’, and ‘there’ indicate the location at which something happens. What about actions moving toward or away from a location, like ‘homeward,’ but more general? In fact, there’s an equivalent for each of those three in each of these directions of motion:

At To From
Where Whither Whence
Here Hither Hence
There Thither Thence

Now, using these words may make you sound like you just stepped out of Shakespeare or Chaucer, but in fact they are nice, compact ways to express motion. The words in the second and third columns already have a preposition built in!

“Whither do they wander?” sounds better and is technically more correct than “Where do they wander?” since “where” has no “to” sense to it. “Whence did you come?” is more compact than “From where did you come?” or “Where did you come from?”

From this table we can see that “from whence” makes no sense, despite its rather common use.

So, next time you need to talk about where, here, or there something went to or from, consider using these nicely compact, already invented ways to express that notion!

Learning Latin with children’s books

A desire has been growing in me for some time now to pick up a little Latin. And now with the spring semester at a close, I jumped at the chance to browse some beginning Latin books at the library.

The one I took home with me is “Teach Yourself Beginner’s Latin.” It starts out very basic and has you reading simple Latin from the first chapter. (By “simple” I mean “Dick and Jane” level, but far more interesting, as it discusses the antics of a monk and his mule in the woods.) Despite its simplicity, the feeling of accomplishment is satisfying. Mulus equos non amat. “The mule does not like the horses.” The book jumps right in with declensions (nominative, accusative, and ablative) but, curiously, reserves introducing gender for a few chapters later. So far, it feels comfortingly similar, yet intriguingly different, from my previous studies of French, Spanish, and Italian.

Once I gain some basic reading ability, I will want something to read. That is, something within a beginner’s reach, which probably rules out Tacitus.

My local library contains, to my surprise, two children’s books that have been translated into Latin: Tela Charlottae (Charlotte’s Web) and Winnie Ills Pu (Winnie the Pooh). The former is in juvenile non-fiction, while the latter is in adult non-fiction, due either to inconsistency or some guideline I have not yet grasped. The Library School won’t let me take Cataloguing to find out, until I take some required database class this fall! The non-fiction designation alone puzzled me, until I realized that these books are next to annotated or scholarly versions of various children’s (fiction) literature, so I guess a translation is similar in spirit.

There are also some good pointers to online materials for beginning Latin readers. This list led me to a delightful 1933 text called Cornelia, which is designed with a progressive vocabulary that makes a point of encouraging you to learn words by context as they are encountered. From the Author’s “Foreward to Pupils”:

Salvete, discipuli. This is the story of a little American girl named Cornelia. Her life was different from yours, but not very different. You will readily understand the things that she did. I hope that you will like her and that you will enjoy the adventure of finding out about her in a language that is not your own. Valete, discipuli.

Benigne, magistra!

What’s the “case” in upper and lower case?

If I thought about it at all, I assumed that upper case and lower case were just two different cases (options) for big, or small, letters. You might therefore assume that these terms have been with us since the invention of writing, or at least writing in two sizes.

Not so!

These terms came into being with the invention of moveable type and the printing press (1450 A.D.). Typesetters would pick letters from a large case organized by letter. And — you guessed it — capital letters were in the “upper case” and the rest were in the “lower case.” The terms referred to their physical location, which quickly became convention, because then a typesetter from one press could quickly adapt to another press. Yet now the terms are so generic that they are used even in handwriting instruction. The printing press’s influence echoes down the ages!

Notice the upper-case letters had slots of equal size, while the lower-case letters (more often used) had slots proportional to their frequency of use (in English). This is what you’d need when setting a single line of type.

There were already existing terms for the two cases. Capital letters were referred to as “majuscules” and small letters were “minuscules.” But such was printing’s influence that the jargon of the trade has spread out to general use. Also, scripts that have two sizes, like this, are referred to as “bicameral” scripts (just like bicameral government!).

I learned about this in “The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing 1450-1800” by Febvre and Martin, which I am reading for a library school course on the history of books and libraries. This book contains other interesting tidbits, like the fact that once the printing press got going, it was very productive; skilled teams could produce a sheet every 20 seconds. Further, there’s a sordid and fascinating story behind Gutenberg and his associates Fust and Schoeffer, who took over his printing press just as he was finalizing the process, because Gutenberg defaulted on a loan; as a result, none of the books printed with his press bear his name as the publisher, although the history books have given his name full credit.

Nowadays even fonts displayed digitally continue the use of “upper” and “lower” case to distinguish these two components of the English script. The very term “font” is also an echo of early printing press technology developments, as it comes from “fondue” which means something that has been melted; early fonts were cast in metal at a type foundry. Can we imagine “tweet” or “text” or “facebook” persisting in our vocabulary for a similar span of more than 500 years?

Word Magic

“Is That a Fish in Your Ear?” asks the title of a book I am currently reading. This book delves into the whats, whys, and hows of translation. Along the way, it raises fundamental questions about what we want, need, or can expect from a translation. I’m only in chapter 5 and already have encountered several thought-provoking ideas.

One such idea is that of “Word Magic.” This is the phenomenon that we tend to ascribe some sort of reality to something just because we have a word for it. Examples given in the book include “levitation,” “real existing socialism,” and “safe investment.” The dangerous aspect of word magic is that it can make us forget or ignore hidden assumptions and fail to notice when the world of words departs from the world of reality. This isn’t (just) about oxymorons, for dubbing a word as an oxymoron indicates an acknowledgment of its unreal nature (usually through self-contradiction). Word magic happens when we talk about something that need not be self-contradictory, but does not exist, while we don’t notice or don’t care about its unreality. What a powerful concept! (Which concept, by the way, originates from C. K. Ogden in his book The Meaning of Meaning, which I now would also like to investigate.)

I don’t think that having words to describe things that are not “real” is itself a problem. Much of science fiction (or speculative fiction) is founded upon describing worlds and things that do not exist in our current reality. Our power of imagination makes this kind of creativity both inevitable and something to admire and appreciate. It is only when word magic is employed to manipulate minds that it creates a problem. Now I’m trying to think of other word magic examples and having a hard time with it—perhaps exactly because it’s a phenomenon below usual conscious notice.

I am reminded of this quote by Dale Spender:

“Language is not neutral. It is not merely a vehicle which carries ideas. It is itself a shaper of ideas.”

But of course, I’m the one who’s avoided using my serrated bread knife to slice tomatoes for years, simply because it is a “bread knife.” Somehow I had it in my head that a paring knife was supposed to be the right tool. Wrong! It’s good to be alerted to these quirks, caused by the necessary reduction of an entire thing’s essence, purpose, and potential down to a mere word or two.

From the Fish book’s table of contents, I see that future chapters will also discuss machine translation, and perhaps the limits of what can be automated. I can’t wait to read more.

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