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Core word sets

I’ve been playing with the ‘the up-goer five text editor’ recently. It challenges you to write using only the 1000 most common English words. It will tell you if you’ve used a word that isn’t one of these. It’s challenging but fun and made me have to think creatively about how to reword something. It reminded me of something we skimmed over in one of my modules: the idea of semantic primes. This is the idea that we can define other words from a small set of core ideas. It wasn’t the focus of the module so I’m not well-informed on the topic, but we looked at some of the ideas from Anna Wierzbicka’s 1995 and 1996 work, and her idea that there are 55 semantic primitives, which could be used to define other words. We had an exercise of writing definitions just using these core words/ideas.

There was a study earlier last year where researchers looked at the structure of how words define and are defined by other words in four English dictionaries. They found that about 10% of the words in the dictionaries are used to define other words, with the other 90% not defining other words. Many of these 10% core words (which here are called the kernel) can in turn be fully defined by the other words in the kernel. These essential defining words could vary, but made up about half of the core set (around 5% of the dictionaries). The researchers called these defining words the ‘minimal grounding set’.

The researchers found that children generally acquire the minimal grounding set before the other core words and then the core words before other words. Compared with other words, the minimal grounding set of words are the most frequently in use and also have more concrete, rather than abstract, meanings.

This isn’t a topic I’m well acquainted with, however, I really like the idea of there being a core set of words. I wonder if the 1000 most common English words are similar to words found in a minimal grounding set and if there is a relationship between Wierzbicka’s semantic primitives and the minimal grounding set?

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Crush, squeeze and mash

This week my friend posted me a link to a silly article called ‘what your book crush says about you’. Instead of boring you about my school day crush on Hamlet, I wondered where the word ‘crush’ came from and looked it up. However to my horror the dictionary was no help and I had to do more searching.

Its meaning seems to be linked with ‘crush’ as to squeeze or compress. I can see this link, maybe coming from wanting to hold someone really close? A newspaper article suggests it might have come from the word ‘mash’. Mashed meant flirtation and because of the similar common meaning between mash and crush it’s suggested crush might have developed from here. There doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer to where crush came from. Are there any other examples of similar meaning words other than other than mashed, squeeze (meaning your partner) or crush? It’s strange that these violent sounding words relate to love. Do they hold connotations of compression (perhaps reflecting someone being too clingy?) or just wanting a hug someone tightly?

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“Kiss me” code

This code reads ‘kiss me’ and is an example of the playful nature of rune codes…and apt for Valentines day!

“Kiss me” written in digit runes (Photo: Jonas Nordby)[/caption]

This is written in a variant of digit runes, where number combinations represent a rune. This particular code has been able to be translated for a while, however there has been a recent discovery of how to understand a previously un-solved code.

The jötunvillur code can now by read because of the work of Jonas Nordby.

In the jötunvillur code the last sound of the rune’s name replaces the rune in the code. Nordby suggests it was used to help remember the runes’ names and the code has sometimes been found in an educational context, supporting this theory. It was unlikely to be used for messages as it isn’t easy to immediately decipher. The first thing I remember being taught about runes and rune codes at university was that they aren’t mystical or magical, but used in everyday contexts. I think the kiss me translation is a nice example of this (especially today on Valentine’s day!).

As a child my cousin and I made a type of code (to use the word loosely) with each letter of the alphabet replaced with a symbol. I don’t think we used it much as we had to remember what the symbols stood for and I think our childish spelling probably didn’t help in being able to translate it! But this shows the fun people have in creating codes.

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Etymologies of the sky

At Christmas I bought myself Haggard Hawks and Paltry Poltroons: The Origins of English in Ten Words by Paul Anthony Jones. It’s formed into sections of ten related words usually based around their etymologies and I’ve been enjoying picking it up and flicking though it. One of the ‘ten words derived from rocks and stones’ was to my surprise ‘cloud’. We don’t usually associate clouds with the heaviness of rocks, but apparently in Old English ‘clud’ meant a mass of earth or rock (as we can still see in the word clod) before cloud adopted its current meaning. The similarity between the dense, grey lumps is thought to have suggested the relationship.

I thought I’d look up a few other common sky-related words to see how they developed:

Snow: This is thought to have roots in the Proto-Indo-European form *sniegwh, which became the Proto-Germanic *snaiwaz and then Old English snaw. I still come across people talking about how Eskimo’s have X ridiculous number of words for snow, while actually Eskimo languages have probably about the same number of words for snow as English does. One of the reasons for the myth is the Eskimoan languages are polysynthetic. This means that while English might use separate graphological words to describe a type of snow (e.g. ‘thin ice’) Eskimo languages can express the same thing by deriving a word from a base form to make a single graphological word. Therefore it looks like there are many different words for snow. So instead of ‘thin ice’ being written as two words with a space between them, it would look like one. This is hugely simplified, but really it all just depends on how you count a ‘word’, if we count each instance of these Eskimoan derived forms it would make as much sense to count every individual case of derivation in English, such as ‘ice’, ‘icy’, ‘iced’, etc.

Sun: From Old English ‘sunne’ which is derived from Proto-Germanic *sunnon. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, in Old English – when words were gendered – sun was feminine and a feminine pronoun used to be used to the describe the sun. In the 16th century a masculine pronoun began to be used, so today the song goes, ‘the sun has got his hat on’.

Sky: The word is thought to be originally derived from the Proto-Indo-European word *(s)keu, meaning ‘to cover’. This became *skeujam (also meaning cloud or cloud cover) in Proto-Germanic before coming into English from Old Norse ‘sky’ meaning ‘cloud’. The word came to mean both sky (with or without clouds) and heaven. The native word meaning the physical space above us as well as a spiritual place was ‘heofon’ (an earlier version of ‘heaven’). According to one of my university books, ‘sky’ and ‘heaven’ were in use at the same time and were synonyms. So close synonyms that it is unlikely that both would be needed in the language. In this case, sky become primarily associated with the physical space and heaven with the spiritual one.