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Uncleftish Beholding by Poul Anderson
Posted: 20 May 2014 12:34 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Quite probably many of you have seen this before. Rather than tell you what it is, I’ll just let you enjoy it.

For most of its being, mankind did not know what things are made of, but could only guess. With the growth of worldken, we began to learn, and today we have a beholding of stuff and work that watching bears out, both in the workstead and in daily life.

The underlying kinds of stuff are the firststuffs, which link together in sundry ways to give rise to the rest. Formerly we knew of ninety-two firststuffs, from waterstuff, the lightest and barest, to ymirstuff, the heaviest. Now we have made more, such as aegirstuff and helstuff.

The firststuffs have their being as motes called unclefts. These are mightly small; one seedweight of waterstuff holds a tale of them like unto two followed by twenty-two naughts. Most unclefts link together to make what are called bulkbits. Thus, the waterstuff bulkbit bestands of two waterstuff unclefts, the sourstuff bulkbit of two sourstuff unclefts, and so on. (Some kinds, such as sunstuff, keep alone; others, such as iron, cling together in ices when in the fast standing; and there are yet more yokeways.) When unlike clefts link in a bulkbit, they make bindings. Thus, water is a binding of two waterstuff unclefts with one sourstuff uncleft, while a bulkbit of one of the forestuffs making up flesh may have a thousand thousand or more unclefts of these two firststuffs together with coalstuff and
chokestuff.

[The rest of the copyrighted material can be read here.]

[ Edited: 20 May 2014 06:54 AM by OP Tipping ]
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Posted: 20 May 2014 04:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Please be careful not to violate copyright when you post to this site. Posting the entire text of short story does not fall within the guidelines for fair use/fair dealing.

And it’s Poul Anderson, not Paul.

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Posted: 20 May 2014 06:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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For those who’d like to know what it is without reading more, or have read more and don’t quite get it, I quote Dave’s description from an earlier discussion:, after an anti-SPOILER space:

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It’s essentially a chapter out of a basic chemistry text describing the atomic theory of matter, but its written as if the Norman Conquest never occurred. All the roots are Gemanic. “Helium,” for example, is called “sunstuff.”

[ Edited: 20 May 2014 06:30 AM by Dr. Techie ]
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Posted: 20 May 2014 06:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Apologies, Dave. Perhaps I should replace the first two posts with a link. (edit: I see you’ve done that for me.)

I would need a ruling on whether Poul goofed with germanstuff. German is may be ultimately Latinate.

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Posted: 20 May 2014 11:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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My first thought was, surely water is a binding of airstuff and waterstuff, not sourstuff and waterstuff.  But I see “air” came to English via French.

Can anyone shed any light on why “sour” would be a fitting root for a compound term meaning “oxygen”?  I took a brief look into its etymology for clues (I.e., did it mean something like “air” at one point, or was it derived from a Germanic word which had that meaning?) but came up empty.

This is not a peeve: if Anderson made a somewhat arbitrary or whimsical choice here, that was plainly his right.  But sometimes a choice by a writer that initially struck me as arbitrary turns out to have been nothing of the kind, and I’m wondering if that is true here.

FWIW, “windstuff” seems like it would be a serviceable Germanic-English neologism for “oxygen.” Or perhaps “lyftstuff”: as far as I can tell, “lyft” is an OE term meaning air/sky, and was the go-to word for “air” in English (until it was replaced by “air").  But “lyftstuff” might have been too confusing to a modern reader.

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Posted: 20 May 2014 11:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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When oxygen was named, it was believed to be an obligatory component of acids, and the root oxy- means sharp, sour, acidic. The German name is Sauerstoff, for the same reason, and Anderson was probably basing his choice on that.  (Likewise, hydrogen is Wasserstoff.)

(And although oxygen is the component of air we need most acutely, remember that it is NOT the main component of air, which is about 79% nitrogen.  Anderson apparently didn’t mention nitrogen in his piece, unless I missed it.)

[ Edited: 20 May 2014 11:33 AM by Dr. Techie ]
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Posted: 20 May 2014 03:15 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Thanks, Dr. T, the sourstuff explanation makes perfect sense and was exactly the sort of information I was hoping for.

Re air, I knew that air is not mostly composed of oxygen, but I figured that if hydrogen can in a figurative sense be said to be waterstuff then oxygen can figuratively be said to be airstuff/windstuff/lyftstuff.  They involve quite different sorts of figurative extensions, but it doesn’t seem hard to imagine an alternate world where oxygen comes to be called something like lyftstuff (perhaps to the great annoyance of the language peevers of that world).

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Posted: 20 May 2014 03:36 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Also, I realize it was baseless for me to assume that an alternate world’s word for “oxygen” would have something to do with “air”, simply because I think of oxygen as the most pertinent ingredient of “air”.  This is especially true given that oxygen’s etymology is utterly non-air related.  Had I thought to look up the etymology of oxygen in my quest to figure out sourstuff, I might have realized that acid was the link between the two, which would have been enough for me to make sense of sourstuff even without knowing how similar it is to the modern German term for oxygen.

Sigh.  It’s all so obvious in hindsight.

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Posted: 20 May 2014 10:06 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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BTW, although Anderson has described it as being English without the Norman Invasion, even if there’d been no Norman Invasion we’d probably see plenty of Greek and Latin derived technical terms in English (though fewer Greek and Latin derived “ordinary” words, I suppose). I mean, there was no Norman Invasion of Iceland but Icelandic contains craploads of Greek and Latin derived technical terms.

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Posted: 21 May 2014 08:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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True, though one could also argue that many of them entered Icelandic via English.

OTOH, English would probably have adopted many Greek and Latin scientific terms even without the Norman invasion.

OTOOH, is that characterization of the language (i.e. English without the Norman invasion) Anderson’s or Dave’s?

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Posted: 21 May 2014 09:10 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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ISTM that English likely would have had many French-derived words in its vocabulary, for both technical and non-technical stuff, even if the Norman invasion never happened, given France’s cultural prominence and its geographic proximity.  Fewer, almost certainly, especially for everyday things like cowmeat, but quite a few nonetheless.

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Posted: 21 May 2014 10:31 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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OTOOH, is that characterization of the language (i.e. English without the Norman invasion) Anderson’s or Dave’s?

Both. I recall seeing a description of the piece by Anderson in which he says that the story is just a musing on what English might have looked like if the Norman Conquest had never happened. (IIRC, it was in the story’s intro in All One Universe.)

ISTM that English likely would have had many French-derived words in its vocabulary, for both technical and non-technical stuff, even if the Norman invasion never happened, given France’s cultural prominence and its geographic proximity.  Fewer, almost certainly, especially for everyday things like cowmeat, but quite a few nonetheless.

From the OED, figures for the language of origin for its entries:

English: 162,995 (24,188 of which are pre-1500)
French: 23,248 (10,322)
German: 3,495 (84)
Italian: 2,038 (50)
Spanish: 1,741 (15)
Dutch: 1,398 (270)
North Germanic 1,264 (729)
Arabic: 510 (12)
Japanese: 507 (0)
Russian: 401 (0)
Chinese: 245 (0)

Latin: 40,562 (5,917)
Greek: 8,118 (114)

Such numbers are always a bit suspect, but they’re reasonable for rough comparison. It would seem that without the Normans, the number of French words would be an order of magnitude fewer. Before 1500, English was very much an insular and isolated language, with the only significant outside influences being French, Latin, and the Nordic languages (i.e., the Viking occupation of northern England). And of these, French still has twice the impact of Latin. The polyglot nature of English is really a modern phenomenon. French has shaped English like no other, and this is due almost entirely to the Norman Conquest.

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Posted: 21 May 2014 03:42 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Dr. Techie - 21 May 2014 08:11 AM

True, though one could also argue that many of them entered Icelandic via English.

OTOH, English would probably have adopted many Greek and Latin scientific terms even without the Norman invasion.

OTOOH, is that characterization of the language (i.e. English without the Norman invasion) Anderson’s or Dave’s?

Latin and Greek were the scholarly languages of Europe for much of the last millennium. Non-Norman English would be less Frenchified but you’d still expect technical terms of European languages (including English) to be heavy in Greek and Latin derived terms.

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Posted: 22 May 2014 01:13 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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I remember reading Uncleftish Beholding on its first publication in Analog way back sometime. (The illustration at the top of the story showed an industrial plant with a new-age-ish symbol on its cooling tower.) I started reading in bewilderment until I hit ‘sourstuff’ which I recognised from German Sauerstoff then backtracked to the beginning of the story and enjoyed the linguistic game Anderson was playing.

The version of the text linked seems slightly different to the one I remember. I’ll need to see if I can find my printed copy and check, but I seem to remember it having ‘headachestuff’ rather than ‘glasswortstuff’ for element 11.

I also don’t think the version in Analog had the element numbers after some of the names. In consequence, in those pre-interweb days, I wasn’t able to translate all of them successfully. I also, of course, didn’t have access to the invaluable Big List for their etymologies - thank you Dave!

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Posted: 22 May 2014 08:11 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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For heaven’s sake, it’s perfectly obvious he’s trying to write using only native forms; it seems oddly picky to speculate on the precise degree of borrowing that might have happened under various alternative circumstances, just because he put it in terms of the Norman Conquest.

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Posted: 22 May 2014 09:09 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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But it’s possible at least to speculate that it was the impact of Norman French on the language that made English so receptive to the adoption of foreign terms for any specialist or abstract concept. It could be that
if the Norman Conquest hadn’t happened and the English had gone into the High Middle Ages still speaking more-or-less straight-up Anglo-Saxon, they would have been more willing to translate new or foreign concepts rather than simply adopt them. The medieval Germans, for example, calqued a whole string of theological terms (e.g. Dreifältigkeit, Himmelfahrt, Fegefeuer as against our Trinity, Ascension, Purgatory), and as we saw earlier (Sauerstoff, etc), right to the present day they have continued to coin scientific terms from German roots rather than reaching for Greek or Latin as English speakers tend to do.
But it’s possible at least to speculate that it was the impact of Norman French on the language that made English so receptive to the adoption of foreign terms for any specialist or abstract concept. It could be that
if the Norman Conquest hadn’t happened and the English had gone into the High Middle Ages still speaking more-or-less straight-up Anglo-Saxon, they would have been more willing to translate new or foreign concepts rather than simply adopt them. The medieval Germans, for example, calqued a whole string of theological terms (e.g. Dreifältigkeit, Himmelfahrt, Fegefeuer, as against our Trinity, Ascension, Purgatory), and as we saw earlier (Sauerstoff, etc), right to the present day they have continued to coin scientific terms from German roots rather than reaching for Greek or Latin as English speakers tend to do.

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