Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The dawning of crepuscular understanding

A while ago., a work-mate (and I haven't had one of them since 2003, so it was quite a long while ago) asked me 'Where does the word "crepuscular" come from?' I thought a while before admitting I had no idea, so we both went to an on-line source (probably Webster's which has the tempting words 'Origin: see crepuscule' - the  entry for which says only that it came from the Latin creper, meaning 'dark'). I didn't know that key word, so thought I had no idea. But if I'd thought in less of a defeatist way, I could have worked back to creper and even maybe (more likely in my philological pomp...) guessed what it must mean.

Let's start with the ending '-ar'. Anyone with a reasonable command of English knows that this ending is the common marker of an adjective, derived usually from a Latin-based word. So circle => circular but not round => roundar, column => columnar but not prop => propar... The less Latinate words often (not always - 'round' doesn't, for example) take the suffix '-like' instead:   prop-like....  But '-like' is a very catholic device, and can be suffixed to almost any noun, as in column-like.

Next, '-ul-' . Latin had the diminutive suffix -ulus/a, which we still see in quite a few words we use in English: 'cumulus', 'homunculus', 'tumulus' [that's one for the map-readers in the audience - 'a little swelling' - think of the word 'tumor'], 'Ursula' (which means 'little bear' - don't mess with an ursa protecting her ursulam!), 'formula'... We can also see it in a word like 'regular' (regula 'little stick', cf our 'yardstick'). Another adjective - one of my favourite derivations and demonstrating again Guy Deutcher's 'reef of dead metaphors' idea (mentioned in another post) - is 'muscular', from mus ('mouse')/musculus ('little mouse'), which is the way muscles looked to Early Romans - at least the ones who didn't get within gawping distance of auspice-reading: a little metaphorical mouse scampering about under a carpet.

Finally, '-sc-'. This leads us to the concept of the infix. Most English speakers know about suffixes and prefixes; so even if you haven't met the word until now you can probably guess what an infix does. David Crystal in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language cites, in English, only - not entirely relevantly, I think (as what is introduced is a complete word rather than a syntactical nut or bolt) - the possibility of introducing an emphatic word into another word - tmesis. He gives the rather strait-laced example 'abso-blooming-lutely' (at least, he did in the first edition; he might have changed it by now to my favourite: 'un-f*cking-believable').

In Vulgar Latin there was -ESC/ISC- , known as an 'inchoative infix' (although more influential as a basis for the formation of Romance language verbs [Fr.  finissons/finissez/finissent/etc from  finir, etc - where there is no sense of 'inchoateness', and the infix just introduces this 'regular irregularity' to French -ir verbs; in Spanish and Portuguese they didn't use it as an infix at all, and used -ESCERE as a rather long suffix. to create verbs such as aparecer - 'appear' - presumably distantly related to Latin aperire - 'to open' (as in French, careful readers will notice that it happens only to -IRE verbs). In fact Elcock, in The Romance Languages says 'of all the innovations in the active verb of Vulgar Latin, perhaps the most noteworthy is the extension of the -ESC/ISC infix'. But  I digress: 'Life is one damn thing after another'? - one digression  after another, more like.

In many word-pairs, though, it can be seen as a truly inchoative infix: 'adult/adolescent', 'pubic/pubescent', 'native/nascent'.... other -sc- words have only one half of a potential pair: the image of a crescent moon is growing, but if the moon's full it's not crent. And if a fluorescent light comes on the moment you flick the light-chance'dBeAFineThing-switch (hmm, there are limits to this tmesis thing), instead of flickering for a few seconds, it's not fluorent.

Returning to 'crepuscular'.... Knowing as much I've said so far, but not what creper means (in fact that Webster's link points to 'crepuscule' for a derivation, which goes straight to Fr crépuscule - but I have a feeling that when I first looked at it, about 10 years ago, it mentioned creper) we can work out that it means 'getting (inchoative infix) a little bit (diminutive suffix) <something>-er'. It doesn't take  too wild a guess, knowing what 'crepuscular' means, to conclude that the <something> must be 'dark'. My failure to guess at 'dark' all those years ago rankles to this day. I coulda been a contender.


Update: 2013.10.02.16:20
HeadFooter updated
Update: 2014.08.15.18:20
And again.
Update: 2014.10.21.17:10
And while we're on the subject of early evening, a man on Radio 3 the other day said Gershwin had written a piece after 'finding himself being serenaded at 4.00 in the morning by a band of street musicians in Havana' [or somewhere like that] Shouldn't that have been aubaded, or has the word not been invented yet? Well it has now. 

 Mammon When Vowels Get Together V5.2: Collection of Kindle word-lists grouping different pronunciations of vowel-pairs. Now complete (that is, it covers all vowel pairs –  but there's still stuff to be done with it; an index, perhaps...?) 

And here it is: Digraphs and Diphthongs . The (partial) index has an entry for each vowel pair that can represent each monophthong phoneme. For example AE, EA and EE are by far the most common pairs of vowels used to represent the /i:/ phoneme, but there are eight other possibilities. The index uses colour to give an idea of how common a spelling is, ranging from bright red to represent the most common to pale olive green to represent the least common.

I'm thinking about doing a native iBook version in due course, but for now Mac users can use Kindle's own (free) simulator.

Also available at Amazon: When Vowels Get Together: The paperback.

And if you have no objection to such promiscuity, Like this

Freebies (Teaching resources:  over 46,800 views  and over 6,300 downloads to date**. They're very eclectic - mostly EFL and MFL, but one of the most popular is from KS4 History, dating from my PGCE, with nearly 2,350 views and 1,000 downloads to date. So it's worth having a browse.)

** This figure includes the count of views for a single resource held in an account that I accidentally created many years ago.

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