Saturday, April 28, 2012

Why do we have the letter "C" in English?

Have you ever wondered why we have the letter “C”, which doesn’t have a sound of its own but borrows from “K” and “S”? Curious about that I got this great book on the history of our alphabet called Language Visible: Unraveling the Mystery of the Alphabet From A to Z, by David Sacks. I refer to information from that book and my own knowledge of language. (It’s a hobby of mine to study it.)

“C” is more common than “K” by the way. I know that from my job at a reading school and my own research. “C” is most often pronounced like “K” but borrows from “S” when it’s followed by “I, e,” or “y” (an exception being the word soccer). Really the only unique contribution “C” makes to our language is when it’s paired with “H” as in “ch” (but can sound like “K” in words of Greek origin: anchor, or “sh” in words of French origin: chef). Occasionally it breaks the rules when paired with “E” or “I” as in “ocean” or “glacier”.

Sometimes it’s silent: muscle.

“C” and “G” are very closely related. Not just in shape, of course, but in sound as well. Physically, the tongue moves the same way to produce both sounds. The difference is that “G” is voiced, and “C” is not (the vocal chords vibrate to produce the noisy “G” sound). “G” also can turn soft (make the “J” sound) when “I,e” and “Y” come after it (but it doesn’t have to).

Alphabets came from previous alphabets, borrowing letters. The first was Egyptian, and going down the branch that led to English, next came the Phoenician alphabet, then the Greek, then the Etruscan, and then the Roman, whose letters we use.

3,000 years ago, Phoenician’s alphabet had “G” as the third letter. “C” wasn’t around yet. The Greeks copied their alphabet and brought it to Italy. The Etruscans there had no “G” sound, apparently. Their nearest sound to it was “K”. (So they didn’t need Greek’s third letter “G” [gamma]). They had “K” and “Q”. Sources show that the Etruscans kept gamma in third place in the alphabet but used it to represent the sound “k”.  The shape of the letter went through changes, and the Etruscans stopped using the Greek name gamma and went to something similar to “kay”. They might have said the spelling was “C-E” (long e sound).

Romans, Latin speakers, probably didn’t like the Etruscan alphabet with three letters making a “K” sound and none for “G”. They made their own letter for “G” and used “C” more often than “K”. Still “C” only represented the “K” sound. (It’s interesting to note, according the book mentioned above, that Caesar was pronounced like “Kye-sar”.)

When did “C” start borrowing from “S”? In later Roman times. Everyday Latin speakers began to slur the Latin “C” before “I,e” and “Y” (vowels where the tongue is pushed forward) and making it sound like “ch”. This sound became part of languages such as French and Spanish etc. (languages arising from the dying Latin).

“C” in the Middle Ages sounded like “K” and “ch”.  Italian’s soft “C” is “ch”. As for the other Romance languages, the sound disintegrated to “s”.

Remember reading about the Norman invasion of England in 1066? Those Normans brought their Medieval French there, and it mixed with Old English eventually melding into an interesting Middle English. So, most of our words with the soft “C” sound came from that Norman French. Our newer words like “cybernetics” follow those old rules.

By the way, I think “C” is a nice-looking letter and gave my daughter a name starting with it.


Friday, April 20, 2012

Books around the world: Lebanon

Hello, I picked up a book called The Story of Zahra by the female author Hanan Al-Shaykh. It was different than things I've read in the past, as expected. It's a novel and covers such themes as personal struggle (the heroine in the book is a bit unstable), political happenings (the war happening right outside of Zahra's front door in Lebanon), romantic/sexual relationships (Zahra is involved with different men, one being the man she marries while living in Africa), and other things.

In the Arab world, many consider this author to be a leading female novelist. The writing is very effective in making a reader feel the torment her character goes through. At times I cringed, sensing Zahra's troubled feelings. She really does some bizarre things at times; it was quite unexpected and added to the interest of the book. What will Zahra do next? I often wondered. Her family's behavior partially explains Zahra's odd personality. Despite her oddness, it was easy to feel for this character. As civil war rages outside, Zahra makes the decision to seduce the neighborhood sniper to draw him away from his ugly tasks.

The book gives an interesting look into this culture as well, but the main character and her intense emotions drive the story. Will her dreams come true? Will her painful past ever stop haunting her?

I'm glad I read The Story of Zahra even if I couldn't personally relate to Zahra. Hannan Al-Shaykh has done a wonderful job with character development.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Books around the world: Chile

Inés of My Soul by Isabel Allende is a passionate novel set in Spain, Peru, and Chile of the sixteenth century. This is historical fiction based on fact, and is both educational and romantic. It reads like an adventure novel, but the characters were real people.

Inés Suárez and Pedro de Valdivia were Spanish conquistadors who struggled to build the country of Chile. Danger surrounded them at every turn, and horrible hardships.

This book gives a fascinating look at life in the 1500s in Chile and is from Inés’ perspective, including her fiery romance with and later betrayal by Valdivia; though it also presents the viewpoint of the other side, the indigenous people who fight with all their heart against the foreign invaders.

The characters are vivid, as is the plot, rich in historical detail and feeling. Such heroic bravery is colorfully drawn.

Tragic at times, victorious at others, it’s a moving novel. I learned a lot reading it and would search out this author’s other work.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Books around the world: Japan

I just finished reading a 925 page book by the popular Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami. The book, 1Q84, is different than anything I have read before. It's a best-selling novel in Japan, hugely successful.

I read a lot, but I've never read this author before. It was a good story, quite interesting, and kept me engaged. To describe the genre, I'd say it was a fantasy, modern-day (unless you count the year 1984 as vintage), mystery, love story, and tale of self-discovery.

The story is set in Japan, in an alternate 1984, with chapters that switch off between the two main characters, a man and a woman who are trying to find each other. The characters enter this strange world and see discrepancies all around them.

Aomame and Tengo live in this bizarre parallel world and try to make sense of things. Tengo is a math teacher and author who ghostwrites a novel. This action sets off a dangerous line of events. His life unravels. Aomame does something bad but with good intentions. She also gets dragged into a perilous situation. Other characters include an overly insistent television-fee collector, a weird private investigator, a religious cult leader, bodyguards, killers, and other colorful characters.

Many things happen in the story that cause a reader to have to read between the lines. It's a thinking novel but has a lot of action. I enjoyed it but thought it was a little long. There is a lot of repetition in it, especially with repeated dialogue. I wasn't sure if that was the author's style of writing or if the characters just felt it necessary to make sure they heard others right, constantly parroting back what they heard.

It's a profound story, written by a talented author, but so long. However, many things that were written out in great detail were interesting. So much of the book includes minutiae. It's a great look into Japanese culture as well. As an American, I enjoyed the insights.