U is for Underpass

U of Ottawa underpass
This underpass is a pedestrian walkway.

History of the letter U

The Phoenician letter waw (Y), or “hook”, was one of the most variable, undergoing many mutations as it was adopted by various languages and cultures. This letter was the sixth in the alphabet and the origin in Greek of the letters digamma (F) and upsilon (Y), and in Latin of F and V. The letters U, W, and Y were also derived from it. Thus, waw became both a consonant and a vowel.

In Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic, and Syriac, the letter waw came to be written in different ways, as a single stroke or a little circle.

In Latin, a stemless waw (V) was used for the letters U and W. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the lower case letter v began to be rounded sometimes into a u. The capital U became accepted in the 1700s, especially in France.

There is still confusion over the pronunciation and usage of the waw-derived letters, especially in English words borrowed from other languages.

Some U words

cunning

sum

udder

ultimate

underneath

uniform

unusual

upper

urgent

user

Exercises

  1. Define each word in the lists, “Some U Words.” Identify each as a noun, adjective, verb, or adverb. Use each word in a sentence.

Special reading assignment

  1. An underpass is the space under a bridge of some sort, allowing traffic to go through. A long underpass may be called a “subway”, distinct from subway meaning “underground” or “tube” rail transport systems.
  2. Pedestrian underpasses are built where heavy foot traffic needs to avoid a major thoroughfare.

 

Note: This blog post is an excerpt from a book, “English Manual: Letter by Letter,” to be published in 2017.

Q is for Queen Anne’s Lace

Daucus carota
In the very centre of a Queen Anne’s Lace flower is one tiny purple floret.

The sounds of Q

The letter Q, which by itself has the sound of K or a hard C, is in English almost never found by itself, but rather as the digraph, QU. It may be better to think of it as a short K sound followed by a diphthong: UA, UE, UI, or UO.

quarter

quest

quit

quorum

Occasionally, a word with QU is pronounced as a K, without a following diphthong.

quoit

clique

When you understand the origins of letters, you understand English spelling.

Historically, the letter Q came by way of the Phoenicians (they had two K sounds, one a guttural Qof that does not exist in English). The Greeks took it over as qoppa or koppa, but dropped it, as their language did not use that sound. The Etruscans had three K sounds, gamma, kappa, and koppa, this last letter always used before u or o.

The Romans took their alphabet from the Etruscans, but Latin had only one K sound. They dropped kappa and finally used gamma as the letter C and koppa as the letter Q.

Latin needed a representative for the sound “kw” common to the language. The Romans used the letter Q followed by a V (as the letter U hadn’t been invented as yet).

In Old English, the “kw” sound was represented by CW. In their alphabet, “queen” would have been spelled, “cwen”.

The French continued with the Latin QV. When the Normans conquered England, French spelling came to be preferred. CW became QV, and then QU when the letter U was introduced as a vowel. The Norman influence complicated English spelling. Most words containing QU are derived from French and Latin.

The English language didn’t really need QU, as the old CW would have done.

queen (from Old English cwen)

quay (formerly kay or key, these still used in some instances, e.g., the Florida Keys)

quench (in Anglo-Saxon, cwencan)

bequeath (in Anglo-Saxon, bicweoan)

Where QU is pronounced as K, a simple K or C would have sufficed. The following words are derived from French. You may see them spelled with a K on signs or in social media.

antique

boutique

critique

technique

unique

English imports words from other languages, including Arabic. These words may be transcribed from the Arabic alphabet in different ways. The guttural K sound (the Arabic letter qaf) is sometimes transcribed as a lonely Q without a U and is still understandable in English. In the following list, the second instance is the preferred spelling.

burqa or burka or burkha

faqir or fakir

qabab or kebab or kabob

qat or khat or gat

Similarly, some Chinese words have been transcribed into English in different ways.

qi or chi or ki

qigong or chi gong or ki gong

Special reading assignment

  1. Queen Anne’s Lace: a common roadside weed or a beautiful wild flower?

C is for Clover

Trifolium pratense
Clover is found growing in fields and along roadsides.

Significance and history

C is a consonant [Con = with; son = sound; ant = causing] and may be spelled, “cee”.

C is a derived from the Greek gamma and the Semitic gimel.

The original meaning for gimel is “camel”. The Phoenician symbol was sideways, pointed up like a camel’s hump, but perhaps the original symbol was meant to be a throwing stick like a boomerang.

 As an abbreviation, C stands for Centigrade or Celsius; century; circa, or cubic.

The Roman numeral C is a symbol for 100.

cf.  stands for “compare”, from the Latin, conferre.

Special characters

© stands for copyright. A copyright statement consists of the copyright symbol ( ©  ), the author’s name or the publishers, and the date of publication.

© 1973, John W. & Sons, Inc.

Copyright © Charlotte Gray, 1999 

Exercises

  1.  Can you think of any abbreviations or acronyms beginning with the letter C?

 

B is for Basswood

Tilia americana
Basswoods are often planted as an ornamental tree along city streets.

Things that are important often have more than one name. The basswood tree has a number of names, in part derived from how the tree is used and in part derived from other languages. Each name provides a different emphasis or connotation.

The name “basswood” refers to the tree as a source of bast, the flexible inner bark used as a fibre for matting.

The same tree was once called “teil”, now “tilleul”. This name also describes the pale yellow-green colour of the flowers and bracts that make a popular tea, especially in France. An effective darning stitch, called “gris-tilleul”, reflects the shape of the flowers and bracts.

There are around thirty species growing in temperate climates. The scientific name, genus Tilia, derives from the old name for tree, “teil”. Two common species are Tilia americana and T. europaea.

In England, the tree is called a “lime tree”, although it is in no way related to the citrus lime tree.

“Linden” was originally an adjective meaning “made from lime wood”. The wood itself is soft and easy to carve, unlike many other deciduous trees. Now linden is another name for the basswood tree.

Later on we will discuss synonyms, different terms used to describe similar things.