Wednesday, 25 May 2016

English Spelling And History

Two things annoy me about how we write in this country.  One of them is our insistence on refusing to count in duodecimal.  We count in tens, like most of the rest of the world, and we have decimal currency and metric units, again like the rest of the world.  This is purely and simply disabling and there's no real reason for doing it.  People don't complain that much about numerical notation even though there is basically no justification for making arithmetic harder for everyone.

The other thing is of course English spelling.  English spelling is far from phonetic and makes literacy much harder for ourselves and people trying to learn English.  Moreover, for some reason the slightly more logical American spelling system is considered infra dig by most Brits, which is quite annoying in itself considering how much people complain about spelling.  However, unlike the use of base ten for numbers, English spelling does have some value and I think I've probably written about that elsewhere on this blog so I won't go on about it here.  The history of English spelling is quite interesting and carries with it the history of the English-speaking people, so it's an educational resource in that, and other, ways.

English writing begins before the English language even existed.  Around the beginning of the Christian era, Germanic tribes in what is now Northern Italy came into contact with the writing of the Rhaetic people, who may have spoken a language related to Etruscan or possibly a Celtic or Italic language, and adapted it for their own language.  Germanic was also written in an Etruscan-like script on the Helmet of Negau, possibly added later, in the form transliterated into our modern Latin alphabet as "HARIGAST TEIWAZ" - possibly "Harigast the Priest".  The word teiwaz lives on in today's English as the first syllable of the word "Tuesday", and means "god".  It's cognate with the Latin deus, the Greek θεός and the Sanskrit devas, all of which again mean "god".

The first widespread script used for Germanic languages was the Elder Futhark:

This was used to scratch inscriptions on the likes of bones, wood and stone, and resembles to some extent earlier rock carvings found in the prehistoric Germanic area.  The earliest Germanic writing found in Britain is in this script.  This is the fifth century deer bone found in Caistor, Norfolk, which has the word raihan written on it, thus:

This means "row" as in the thing you do with oars. At the time it would've been a reduplicative verb, meaning that certain forms referring to events in the past would have done so by repeating the stem, and coincidentally this type of verb survived longer in East Anglia than elsewhere in the seven kingdoms established by the Germanic invaders of the English heptarchy.  There are a couple of interesting things about this spelling.  One is that it uses a different character for "I" than usual, indicating that the proto-Germanic "AI" had a particular kind of pronunciation by this point.  The "H" also has a single bar, unlike the later Old English rune for the same letter, and this single-bar form is also found in Scandinavia.  This artifact dates from within three decades either side of the officially recorded arrival of the ancestors of the English in this land.  Before the arrival of Hengest and Horsa, however, there were already Germanic people living in Britain as part of the Roman army, including Saxons.

For the next century and a half, Old English was written using Anglo-Saxon runes, an alphabet known as the futhorc:

The last rune, stan, is said to be spurious for some reason.  There are not a huge number of inscriptions in this text although runes themselves continued to be used later as symbols for the words they stand for, and in fact I still use runes today when I'm writing something in public I don't want people to be able to read, for instance ideas for confidential matters involving people I know to pray for when I'm in church or medical notes, and the word "rune" originally meant "secret".

At this point in time, spelling was very simple:  you just wrote down what you heard.  Several different dialects of Germanic were spoken in the Heptarchy at the time, meaning that there was different spelling in different parts of the British lowlands, but this spelling represented the different pronunciations and accents rather than real variants in spelling which didn't correspond to a logical plan of some kind.  Reading was always out loud at the time, so it consisted of simply pronouncing the letters written on the page, and this continued well into the Middle Ages.

It appears also that there were still native Latin, and of course Celtic, speakers in lowland Great Britain at this time, the former of whom, if literate, would've been using the same alphabet as we do again today, but not much is known about them.

In 597, Augustine came to Kent and is said to have established the King's School in Canterbury, although to my mind there is a suspiciously long gap between that event and the earliest records of the place.  In doing so, he would've brought the Latin alphabet here and is the ultimate reason this blog entry uses it.  At around the same time, Irish missionaries entered more northwestern parts of Great Britain and introduced the same alphabet there.

Anglo-Saxon writing is dominated by West Saxon, since at that time and for a while after, the Kingdom of Wessex was dominant among the Anglo-Saxons.  The spelling and pronunciation of English was again pretty close.  There are, incidentally, ways of establishing how languages were pronounced before the advent of recorded sound but I can't be bothered to go into them here.  Just take my word for it.  West Saxon spelling is pretty clearly based on Latin but there were a few sounds in it which didn't exist in Latin and weren't even close.  Two of these were written using the relevant runes, namely þ (þorn) for the sound now represented as "TH", and ƿ (ƿynn) for "W".  That said, in some writing W was already written "UU" and "TH" was even written like that in some places.  Another sound, A as in today's southern pronunciation of "cat", was written using the Latin digraph for the diphthong we now pronounce as "I", that is, æ, also known as æsc - ash - after the name of the rune.  A further letter, ð, eð,  appeared later to indicate the softer "th" sound.

West Saxon didn't have a particularly strong influence on later English compared to other dialects, so today it seems idiosyncratic, particularly in its use of "eo" and its longer-vowelled sister.  However, this isn't really a spelling anomaly as far as anyone can tell, except that I suppose it's possible that people with other accents might sometimes have felt the pressure to "talk posh".  Coincidentally, "eo" has re-entered the English language due to a change in the pronunciation of "L", and is now found, for example, in the word "melt".  There is a little deviation from pronunciation also in the "ea" and long "ea" sounds, which started with æ when spoken.

Then we got invaded by the Danes of course, but that doesn't seem to have made much difference to spelling.  Some people think that English might actually be completely Scandinavian, but the Danes and the English in any case spoke languages similar enough to be kind of understood by each other and may have developed a patois to make themselves understood, from which modern English is descended.  After a period during which they controlled much of the Midlands, including Leicester, they left as a political power, though not necessarily the people themselves, and for the next hundred years or so we all sort of spoke English again.  However, one of the changes was that the sound represented by Y, which was previously like the French U today, started to be pronounced as "ee" and short I, identically to the letter I.  This led to the familiar old-fashioned looking confusion between Y and I and spellings like "hys" and "ys" for "his" and "is".  Another difference was that by this time, the English spoken in the Midlands was becoming more important than West Saxon.

Then, of course, the Normans invaded.  This meant that English became the language of the oppressed poor and they were largely illiterate.  The spelling of English then went two ways.  In the South, it started to be written using French spelling, meaning for example that the previous long U, though still pronounced "oo", was now written "ou" as in the French <<tout>>.  This eventually became our "ow" sound.  Meanwhile, in the Midlands and North English carried on being spelt as it was pronounced, more or less, I'm guessing because the Normans had less influence there.  The runes were used less, possibly because they had pagan overtones to the Normans, and were replaced by "TH" and "W" to some extent, though the old thorn survived in shorter words, and even today is recognised in phrases such as "Ye Olde Coffee Shoppe", where the supposed "Y" is in fact thorn.

During the twelfth century, some kind of spelling reform seemed to be attempted, possibly by just one monk called Orm.  He complains about how people are mispronouncing English and attempts to indicate short vowels by doubling the consonants after them and leaving them single after long vowels, using accents to show long vowels at the end of words and using yogh (ȝ) for the "J" sound of G and the newer letter "g" for the hard G.  This didn't catch on but it does serve to indicate a clue as to how Orm's English was pronounced at the time.

Another innovation from this period is the use of "wh" for "hw".  It's thought that this, along with the likes of "th", emerged from the French habit of using "ch" to indicate a sound which at the time sounded like our modern "ch" and therefore also a bit like the hard C.

England was basically a Norman colony by this point, but as time went by, ever more territory was lost in France and the focus of English monarchs became England.  This led to the return of English as the vernacular, until in 1362 the Statute of Pleading became law.  This allowed English to be used in court due to the loss of good knowledge of Norman French.  However, the English Crown only dropped the claim to France at the start of the nineteenth century, by which time France was a republic anyway.

English began to be written much more often at this point.  A drift can be seen in London English from a southern dialect to a Midlands one, meaning that the so-called "Queen's English" as heard today is originally not southern at all.  Southern English is more or less extinct nowadays, although there are a few remnants of it in words such as "vixen" and "vat", and the use of Z sounds in the Southwest instead of S at the beginnings of words.

What happened next is a bit of a mystery.  At some point soon after Chaucer, all the long vowels in English began to change pronunciation dramatically in a process which continues today.  The long U, by then written "ou", and the long I, began to change their pronunciation into diphthongs which in a sensibly spelt language would be written "au" and "ai" respectively.  This destabilised the whole system of long vowels, leading to a shift in all of them.  This is known as the Great Vowel Shift and may have been caused by the movement of people southwards after the Black Death killed much of the population of northern England, a process which also led to the increase in wages in the South and the Peasant's Revolt at the Poll Tax in the late fourteenth century.  The practical result of the vowel shift is that the way we write our vowels is dramatically different from virtually all other languages.

Most people were of course still illiterate in the fifteenth century, although being the century the printing press was invented, the production of books suddenly got a lot cheaper.  The Reformation also led to more people reading the Bible in English and William Caxton began to standardise English spelling again.

Later in Tudor times, the English began to explore the New World and establish colonies there.  Early American writing shows very little standardisation in its spelling.  Another effect of colonisation was that many new words entered the English language, for instance the names of fruits and vegetables new to European knowledge.  These were spelt differently and thus more variant spellings entered English although the ground had been laid for this possibility through the fact that the nature of our language had already been opened to foreign influence via Danish and Norman French many centuries before.  Many other languages, for instance Mandarin Chinese, lack the flexibility to allow foreign loanwords to any extent.

Later attempts were made to Latinise spelling, sometimes introducing dubious silent letters such as the B in "debt", which is related to the Latin debit but was never really present in the English spelling of the word, which used to be "dette".  Another non-historical example was the spelling of "could", which introduces an L by analogy with "should" and "would" which was never there at all historically.  Changes in pronunciation also meant that many letters, such as the K in "knight" and "know", ceased to be pronounced but stayed in the spelling, although in those cases they do serve to distinguish between those words and the identically pronounced "night" and "no".

American independence led to a split into two standard dialects of English, one spoken in the Commonwealth and the other in North America.  Canada uses an intermediate version of the spelling system, associated with Melvil Dewey, the inventor of the Dewey Decimal System used to classify library books.  His advocacy of spelling reform can be seen in the spelling of his own name, which he altered from "Melville".  Dewey was in fact much more radical than what survived in American spelling.  For instance, he spelt "philosophy" with two F's, and tried to introduce the macron, a horizontal line over long vowels still used in pronouncing dictionaries.  Although these didn't catch on, other ideas of his were adopted and survive in today's American English.

Speaking of American spelling, users of British English in the twenty-first century frequently find themselves hesitating regarding the way we spell words because the internet exposes us to so much American material.  There are now more words ending in "-ize" than there used to be in British English for this reason.  I would also contend that just as there was a time before English spelling was standardised, we may now be leaving this phase in the history of the language due to the common variant spellings of English found in places like social networks, text speech and internet fora.  Whereas we are very attached to the way English is spelt, I suspect this may soon become a thing of the past, and we will probably return to the idea that we spell as we hear the words in our heads when we write.  There's nothing new about this.  Also, unlike other countries we have never had an official body to standardise the language, which again reflects our history as a collection of cultures.

So there you go.  That's basically my account of the history of English spelling and as you can see it also constitutes a bit of a history lesson.  I can't guarantee everything is correct in this, so you may want to look into it yourself.  I just thought it would be a helpful and hopefully interesting educational resource, which is why it's on this blog.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Degrees, Minutes And Seconds

Here's a printable 360 degree protractor:

If you print this on plastic film and cut it out, you will have a protractor.  This to me is a tiny example of how post-scarcity would work because although you could in theory go down the local stationer's and buy a protractor, this one's available for free plus the cost of the ink and plastic.  In an ideal world, oh never mind.

The reason I've put this here, apart from it being a resource for home edders, which in theory is what this blog's supposed to be about, is that it clearly shows the 360 degrees of a circle.  Most people know degrees well enough to be able to understand what's meant by a ninety or forty-five degree angle.  One's surroundings can also be thought of as a 360 degree circle, meaning that the traditional description of objects being at "two o'clock" or "six o'clock" can generally be supplanted by talk of degrees.  It also turns up as a way of describing positions in the sky and on the surface of this planet and other roughly spherical celestial bodies such as Mercury, turning up as latitude and longitude:

In the case of the sky, i.e. the celestial sphere, there's a slightly different system where right ascension and declination replace longitude and latitude respectively, and whereas declination also uses degrees, right ascension uses hours, minutes and seconds.  I tend to think of it as representing the time something rises above the horizon even though that can't be exactly what it is:

This last system, however, is confusing because the words "minutes" and "seconds" refer to different things in different directions.  There are of course 86 400 seconds in a day, so the smallest complete unit of right ascension, a second, is in fact fifteen seconds of arc (arc seconds).  This is the bit I didn't explain.

Minutes and seconds are not just units of time but also of angle.  Perhaps surprisingly, neither of these two systems are completely metricated although metric systems for time and angle do exist.  I'll get back to those.  A minute of arc, or arc minute, is a sixtieth of a degree, that is a relatively tiny shift in direction which would be microscopic if it was marked on the above protractor.  However, in terms of things such as the night sky, the circle of vision and the surface of Earth, arc minutes are fairly large.  An arc minute, coincidentally, is the size of the smallest object visible to the naked eye.  An object an arc minute across would be a tenth of a millimetre across from a distance of twenty-five centimetres.  In fact it's not strictly true that a minute of arc is the smallest part of the visual field discernible because luminous objects are still visible even when they're much smaller and the brighter they are, the smaller they can be.  This means, for example, that the immense distances to the stars still doesn't render them invisible to most people even though they are far smaller than one minute of arc across.

Both big lights in the sky, the Sun and Cynthia, are well over a minute of arc across.  They are in fact both around thirty minutes of arc in diameter from here, meaning that solar eclipses are possible.  This is such an unlikely coincidence that unless there's some reason why habitable planets need such a ratio, solar eclipses are not only a wonder of the world but of the entire Milky Way.  It's unlikely that there are any other planets in this whole Galaxy which have solar eclipses, and in some imaginary Galactic Empire where faster than light travel is possible, this could make Earth a top tourist destination.

Arc minutes also turn up in the form of nautical miles.  If you went a quarter of the way round the equator you would have travelled ninety degrees.   A single degree of longitude on the equator is around fifty miles.  Hence in this context a mile on the equator can be thought of as a measure of angle as well as distance, but it's not a convenient unit because the planet is not exactly 25 000 miles in circumference.  It ought to be exactly 40 000 kilometres in circumference because the kilometre was originally defined as a ten thousandth of the distance between the North Pole and the Equator on a line across the surface passing through Calais.  This is not how it works due to surveying inaccuracies and the fact that the planet is slightly tangerine-shaped rather than absolutely spherical.  However, a nautical mile is defined in a similar way as a minute of longitude, which is 1852 metres, slightly more than the 1609-metre mile.  Knots are then defined as nautical miles per hour, thereby combining two angular sexigesimal (sixty-based) systems in a very neat and appealing way.

Unsurprisingly, minutes themselves are divided into sixty seconds in this system too.  A second of arc or arc second is a sixtieth of an arc minute, which is such a tiny angle that there are 3 600 in a degree.  Again, this sounds fairly useless but again it has many functions.  I'll just mention two.  Measured six months apart, Earth's orbit is 300 million kilometres across, so objects in space shift very slightly against their background in a process referred to as parallax.  The nearest star apart from the Sun shifts by slightly under one arc second in position due to this.  The distance over which an object would shift by this angle is known as a parsec - parallax of one second.  A parsec is just over three and a quarter light years.  Another use of an arc second is to describe the size of distant objects in the sky, so for instance yesterday Mercury was twelve arc seconds across as it crossed the Sun.  Pluto is between four and seven seconds in diameter as seen from here.

As I mentioned before, there are metric and decimal versions of angles.  One of these is the radian:

A radian is easy to describe but for me very hard to understand the point of.  It's simply the radius of a circle moved onto its circumference, or 360 degrees divided by π.  This is around 57 degrees.  I don't know why this is useful although programming languages tend to use it, so I have to use it.

Another decimal angle system was used on the Peter's Projection map, though not on this one:

By Strebe - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
I'm not a fan of the Peter's projection but that's another story.  Some versions of the Peter's world map divide the "globe" not into degrees but gradians.  There are four hundred of these in a circle instead of three hundred and sixty and they were probably invented by someone French.  They're used in surveying.

I hope this makes more sense now.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Sic Transit Mercurius Monday

This afternoon, there was a transit of Mercury.  That is, from our perspective the planet Mercury passed in front of the Sun.  This happens at seven, thirty-three and thirteen year intervals, in either May or November, and takes up to three hours.  If I remember correctly, and I might well not, the May transits are better than the November ones because during the May ones Mercury looks bigger because it's closer.  Mercury is on one occasion ten arc seconds across and on the other twelve.  Apparently people don't know what arc seconds are, so here's an explanation.  A circle is divided into three hundred and sixty degrees.  Each degree is divided into sixty minutes of arc and each minute of arc divided into sixty seconds of arc.  If you consider the three hundred and sixty degrees of the horizon and the sky from horizon to horizon to be a hundred and eighty degrees, the smallest non-luminous object which can be seen is one minute of arc across.  Mercury is up to twelve seconds across, so it would need to be magnified five times to be visible even as a dot crossing the Sun,

I've never knowingly seen Mercury.  During the transit of Venus on 8th June 2004, I managed to project the Sun onto a piece of paper and it was quite clear.  Transits of Venus are much rarer than those of Mercury because Venus, being further from the Sun than Mercury, takes longer to orbit it and so passes between us and the Sun less often.  They occur in pairs a few years apart separated by a century or so.  This sounds odd at first until you realise that in order for Venus to pass in front of the disc of the Sun it has to do so in the plane of Earth's orbit.  Normally Venus passes by the Sun on either side, but if it is passing from "below" or "above" through the equator of the Sun it will be clearly outlined.  It also has the "black drop" effect, where Venus looks like a drop of black liquid as it passes the limb of the Sun because of its atmosphere, which is extremely dense.  At ground level, the atmosphere of Venus is about as thick as the water a whole kilometre down in the ocean here on Earth.  I found the transit of Venus to be particularly interesting because Venus is about the same size as Earth and so it gives you an idea of the scale of the Solar System.

Mercury does this much more often, but has no substantial atmosphere and is only a little larger than Cynthia as well as being further away than Venus on the whole, so although its transits are much more frequent they're harder to see.  This is what I got today when I was trying to project the transit of Mercury:

I've posted this as a full size image and you still can't see Mercury on it.  I don't think I was in the right state of mind to image it.  In other words, it didn't work.

What you need to do is get either a refracting telescope or, as in this case, a pair of binoculars and place a plain white surface at the appropriate distance to get a clearly focussed image.  This is a little risky since you're focussing sunlight and it can break prisms and lenses and cause fires.  However, I think people worry too much about this since as a child I used to filter the Sun through overexposed negative photographic film and look directly at it through binoculars and I can still kind of see.  I have multiple blind spots but probably not because of this activity.

What I like about transits, solar eclipses and looking at the sun safely from a home ed perspective is that they're daylight astronomy.  Two big problems with astronomy and home ed are that if you have a bedtime, you generally don't get to do much of it at night and, as a consequence of this, it tends to get rather abstract.  For this reason I didn't do a lot of astronomy with the children when I was doing Big Science and I'm not keen although it and linguistics are probably my personal two favourite subjects.

This is how the planets concerned were lined up this afternoon at about 2 pm:

As you can see, the Sun, Mercury and Earth are in a straight line.  This happens to be true seen from the side as well:

The next question might be why Mercury looks bigger in May, i.e. why is it closer.  This is because of Kepler's First Law of Planetary Motion.  Planets move in elliptical orbits with the Sun at one focus, i,e. the Sun is never at the exact centre of an orbit because that would be too improbable, and orbits are never circular because that also would be too improbable.  The orbit of Mercury is also more elliptical than any other true planet, but less so than that of Pluto.  Here are the orbits of Mercury and Earth side by side:

The Sun is clearly off to one side in the left hand picture and Mercury also clearly has a much less circular orbit.

This is a close up of Mercury:

Seen from even closer, even experts can't distinguish between it and Cynthia although it lacks the seas of the latter.  The craters, however, look very similar.

In fact, although both of them are barren cratered balls of grey rock, Mercury actually has quite a lot in common with Earth and Mars rather than Cynthia.  Mercury and Earth are the densest planets with Venus a close second, whereas Mars and Cynthia are both only about two-thirds as dense as Earth, Venus and Mercury.  It's been suggested that the reason for this is that Mars and Cynthia are formed from the debris of the outer layers of the original body making Earth up and that we are in fact the bits that sunk to the bottom.  Mercury is a bit bigger than Cynthia but quite a bit smaller than Mars, the figures being:

Cynthia:  3476 km diameter.
Mercury:  4879 km
Mars:  6792 km
Earth:  12756 km.

Even though Mercury is quite a bit smaller than Mars, its higher density gives it a surface gravity about the same.  This is interesting because it means that if Mercury were to be at about the same distance from the Sun as Earth is, it would probably have an atmosphere about as dense as that of Mars and also be roughly the same temperature as we are, notwithstanding a weaker greenhouse effect.  However, the air would probably be somewhat thinner than the Martian air because it has a lower escape velocity, as smaller planets have, so gases leak away into space more easily.  This is because an object doesn't have to go as far to orbit the planet, so a gas particle doesn't either and is more likely to be lost.  Even so, if Mercury was at the same distance as Earth is from the Sun, its sky would be blue and have occasional clouds in it and it might even have a little liquid water on its surface.  However, it wouldn't really have seasons because unlike Earth and Mars it doesn't really tilt.  What it might have if its orbit were still the same shape is the same seasons in both northern and southern hemispheres.  It also has a fairly strong magnetic field partly due to having a large iron core, which would protect it from radiation somewhat, and at a greater distance from the Sun it would have a shorter day (its day currently lasts 56 of ours) because of the weaker tidal forces.  All of this, rather surprisingly, adds up to Mercury being a more friendly place for life in this scenario than Mars is.

Mercury, ironically, probably has no Mercury on its surface since during the day it's hotter than its boiling point.  Strangely, however, Mercury has water ice at one pole, in the crater Chao Meng-Fu, because it's in permanent shadow.

I was going to say a lot more about Mercury but it's past my bedtime, so goodnight!