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I just returned from a long weekend away with my husband in Bilbao, Spain. I say that with trepidation, as, according to many Basque people, it is not Spain, but Basque Country. There are some who are content to remain part of Spain and France, and others who want independence, so when in Basque Country, say it the Basque way.
As a lover of history, linguistics and just about everything else except strenuous exercise, I can say that it was a great weekend (even though a lot of exercise snuck in)! Great weather, great food, great architecture, confusing languages, and interesting sites all round. Here are some highlights:
Guggenheim Museum: The building itself is well worth the visit! The architect, Frank Gehry, literally designed the building on one of his free-form doodles. With only one straight wall that I could see, I can imagine that he was doodling when the phone rang and made his hand jerk, causing the straight line… it’s an engineering feat, to say the least. Just outside the Guggenheim are several sculptures, notably a giant dog made of flowering plants; it was intended to be a temporary display, but the people of Bilbao fell in love with it, and it’s now a permanent landmark. There’s also one for us odd arachnophiles out there, a giant spider. Two sculptures look like they’d float away, even though they weigh tons: “Tulips”, and a tower of balls.
The weather was perfect, so we took a “Bilboat” tour down the waterway; it gave us the chance to see areas of the city which are usually far from the tourist route; areas that are in the throes of rejuvenation and restoration.
Pintxos: You can’t go to Basque Country and eat in a usual restaurant! You need to go (what my husband and I dubbed) “Pintxopping” – like pub crawling but for a Pintxos (“Pinchos”) dinner. They are similar to Spanish tapas but far more elaborate; 5-6 will make a meal. 12 Euro will get you 6 Pintxos and a pint of beer. Any Pintxos bar worth their salt will spread out a wide variety of the treats along the length of their bar, and diners choose a selection of hot and cold delicacies. Bars pride themselves on signature creations; one bar we ate at had a mound of crab meat baked under a layer of squid-ink-tinted cheese, in the shape of a regional mountain. Most are served atop toasted slices of Baguettes, though there are also many on skewers, or served as spring rolls. If you’re now hungry, sorry about that – but you can find recipes all over Pinterest.
Language: The Basque language (Euskara) is a language isolate – in other words, it is unrelated to any other known language. Within language families, one could interpret this or that word based on a known relative language, e.g. between English street and German strasse. But looking at a road sign in Bilbao, you would have NO clue as to which word is the street name, and which is the word for street, road or path. Unless you know Basque, you would have no chance of interpreting anything – even if the context is known. An example sentence from the article on Wikipedia illustrates that point: “Martinek egunkariak erosten dizkit” means “Martin buys the newspapers for me”. It is the last remaining descendant of one of the pre-Indo-European languages of Western Europe, with every other language that might have existed in relation to it having gone extinct, so there’s no way to decipher it based on a comparative method, linguistically. It may have been related to the Aquitanian language, which was spoken in the region before the Roman Republic’s conquest in the Pyrenees region, but the exact origins are unknown. It’s a fascinating study, if you’re interested!
One of the images above was taken on my flight home; the Alps were in fine form, and the weather great for flying; Matterhorn can be seen in the centre. I hope you enjoyed my mini-tour, and I would recommend that you get yourself a pintxo or two to tide you over until your next meal…
The ampersand (&) may seem like a modern invention for lazy spellers, or a typesetter’s solution to limited space, or an English teacher’s pet peeve on exams; but it can actually be traced back to the 1st century Romans. In English, “&” is pronounced “and” rather than its original Latin word “et” (meaning “and”). Hannah Glasse’s writings show us that “etc.” was, in her time, written as “&c.” which may look strange to our modern sensibilities, but makes perfect sense when you know the origin of the ampersand.
There are many examples of ligature (characters consisting of two or more symbols combined into one) in use today; everyday symbols we use likely have quite a history. Have you ever wondered about @, #, ©, ¶, or % ? Or even “?” ? And no, I’m not cussing.
Many currency symbols are a combination, abbreviation or contraction of words or letters: The British pound symbol £ derives from the Roman word “Librae;” Libra was the basic Roman unit for weight, derived from the Latin word for “scales,” or “balance.” “L” was the abbreviation (see, we aren’t the first generation of lazy spellers; but then again, you would be too, if you had to chisel it into stone, or cure hides for scrolls). The Pound Sterling has quite a pedigree and is worth a read over at Wikipedia.
Believe it or not, the “at” symbol, @, was first used in a religious text: The Bulgarian translation of the Greek Manasses Chronicle (c. 1345) used it as an abbreviation for “Amen”. There are several theories as to why it was used in this way; perhaps it was in an effort to save space and ink and hard-won writing surfaces. In English, the symbol was originally an accounting and invoice abbreviation for “at a rate of”. In fact, it has long been used in financial or commercial contexts in several languages. The use in email addresses began in 1971, and we all know how it’s used in web page addresses, and increasingly in use in text messages; it is probably the most common ligature of all.
Our modern language has added Emoticons to the list of ligature symbols; many computers automatically convert certain combinations of symbols into a different one altogether; for example: :+-+) becomes , <+3 becomes ♥; for more, take a gander at the image to the right.
Our language is full of history; those little symbols, punctuation marks that we take for granted, that necessary “@” for connecting to the world… what would we do without them? And a hundred years from now, teenagers will be surprised how old is; they might even wonder what a physical computer keyboard with individual keys looked like.
Originally posted 2 July 2013 on History Undusted