Monday, March 24, 2008

Martin Waldseemüller

Martin Waldseemüller was a German cartographer who owns the distinction of naming America. He had read journals by Amerigo Vespucci, a merchant who, in 1499, retraced the itinerary Columbus had followed. These journals talked of a "New World". On April 25th, 1507, Waldseemüller created the first map with the new continent called "America" (from the latinized version of Amerigo, Americus, made feminine, as all continents were feminine).

The choice of America as a name was contested from the beginning, with many journals calling it simply "Indies". Even Waldseemüller, by 1513, seemed to question his choice and thereafter referred to it as "Terra Incognita". But by this time it was too late and the "New World" was standardized as "America".

This is not the curious part. What is strange is that Waldseemüller's map contains a Pacific Ocean off the Western Coast of America, before anyone had any notion of its existence.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Romance of English

English is a Germanic language, deriving from the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, and having its formal roots in what we now call Frisian. However it is also as Latinized as any of the formal Romance languages, and for this we can thank the Normans.

When William the Conqueror conquered and took the reins of England in 1066, he made sure that the nobility was gentrified with people from Normandy, his home country. All of the royal houses, upper classes and clergy were taken over by Normans, who all spoke French.

This is a normal modus operandi for conquering nations. The interesting fact was how the English language managed to persist (unlike Celtic five hundred years earlier) and absorb the French terms. What came about were dual terms which, at first, meant the same thing, but as time passed came to represent minor differences in meaning that are not found in most languages, and that have made English as descriptive as it is.

A few examples are the French derived 'demand', and the English 'ask', which at first had the same meaning, but have diverged throughout the years. The same occurred with 'bit' (English) and 'morsel' (French), 'look' (English) and 'regard' (French), 'wish' (English) and 'desire' (French).

It is also possible to see linguistically what position in the social hierarchy the English and the Normans occupied. For example, the English lower classes raised 'pigs', while the Norman upper classes ate 'pork'; the English had 'cows', 'deer', 'hides' and 'sheep', while the Normans had 'beef', 'venison', 'skin' and 'mutton'.

We can only assume the Normans didn't enjoy chicken, or the United States might have now be strewn with Fast food restaurants called KFP and Poul-Fil-A.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

He died before he was born

From a tombstone in the floor of the North Choir Aisle of Salisbury Cathedral in England:


The boy was born on May 13th and died on February 19th of the same year.