Wordy Wednesday: The Magic of a Single Letter

I’m feeling fairly random today. I’m in the middle of finals – just finished the major paper of the semester (it’s finally done!) but my final exam for my other class is still coming up on Monday. It feels like I’m being pulled in a thousand different directions, bouncing from one project to the next.

Still, I’ve been really productive the last week and my to-do list is slowly getting chipped away. I’m working on a post on Demonstratives for next week after the exam and trying to decide what I want to write about next. There’s so much! It’s hard to choose.

I learned something cool the other day. Did you know that the word for letter, I mean letter as in a or b or c, not the kind you write home to Mom (that’s vēstule, by the way), uses a similar root as the words for magic and magic-users? I wondered if they are related (and it turns out that they are!). I could see people thinking letters and those who could read them were magical, couldn’t you?

Today’s post is all about the magic of combining letters together into words and spells of sentences.

  • burts : letter of the alphabet [slider title=”decline me”]burts, m, 1. dekl.
    vsk.: burts, burta, burtam, burtu, ar burtu, burtā
    dsk.: burti, burtu, burtiem, burtus, ar burtiem, burtos [/slider]

    The very simplest building block of a word is the letter. There are several words that do build for certain off of this – burtnīca, for example – and all relate to copying and printing in some way.

  • burvis : spellcaster (masc.), wizard [slider title=”decline me”]burvis, m, 2. dekl.
    vsk.: burvis, burvja, burvim, burvi, ar burvi, burvī
    dsk.: burvji, burvju, burvjiem, burvjus, ar burvjiem, burvjos [/slider]

    burve : spellcaster (fem.), witch [slider title=”decline me”]burve, f, 5. dekl.
    vsk.: burve, burves, burvei, burvi, ar burvi, burvē
    dsk.: burves, burvju, burvēm, burves, ar burvēm, burvēs [/slider]

    While I’ve given the basic translation here of “wizard” and “witch”, as well as “spell-caster”, the definitions are rather loose and refer generally to any type of magic-user.

  • burtot : to spell or sound out [slider title=”conjugate me”]burtot, 2. konj. (long)
    tag. burtoju, burto, burto, burtojam, burtojat
    pag. burtoju, burtoji, burtoja, burtojām, burtojāt
    nak. burtošu, burtosi, burtos, burtosim, burtosiet / burtosit
    pav. burto, burtojiet [/slider]

    The dictionaries give this definition, however, it is a bit confusing. This is to spell out as in sounding out words when you read unfamiliar ones aloud. It’s generally associated with children learning to read.

  • burt : to conjure, to practice magic [slider title=”conjugate me”]burt, 1. konj.
    tag. buru, bur, bur, buram, burat
    pag. būru, būri, būra, būrām, būrāt
    nak. buršu, bursi, burs, bursim, bursiet / bursit
    pav. bur, buriet [/slider]

    Here’s where it gets interesting. Burtot is to spell out, but burt is to cast spells. If you prefix burt with ap-, you get apburt, to bewitch.

    Are they *really* related? I don’t know. There’s certainly enough cognates that operate this way in English and while I am a language geek, I’m not a lexicography geek. They are similar enough to make me smile – and just as importantly, it’s an interesting little tidbit to ensure they stick in my memory.

    Edited to Add: Thanks to Dace, we have confirmation! They are definitely related! See the comments for her great story. :)

  • burvestība : magic, spell [slider title=”decline me”]burvestība, f, 4. dekl.
    vsk.: burvestība, burvestības, burvestībai, burvestību, ar burvestību, burvestībā
    dsk.: burvestības, burvestību, buvestībām, burvestības, ar burvestībām, burvestībās [/slider]

    Finally, we end with magic itself. It’s a flexible word. In the singular, it could be talking about magic as a large overall concept or a small magic, as in a single spell or working. When this is used in the plural, it is definitely talking about several spells. It can be countable or uncountable, depending on context.

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5 Responses to Wordy Wednesday: The Magic of a Single Letter

  1. Dace says:

    Fascinating story – they are indeed related! The original meaning of ‘burt’ was ‘to cut’ or ‘to cut into’ therefore ‘burts’ originally meant ‘a cut in a tree/piece of wood’. This then developed into ‘burtkoks’ (‘a piece of wood with cuts’) – a piece of wood with marks cut into it which was used for divination and other magical stuff. Later these ‘burtkoki’ were used also used for bookkeeping to record the accounts (probably something like the peasant Jānis brought five pigs to the muiža – or manor house – today). In the nineteenth century there was a movement to purify the Latvian language and many Latvian words were developed to replace German ones. Alunāns was one of the prime movers in this process – he thought (wrongly) that the ‘burti’, i.e. ‘cuts’, were like runes and so he suggested the use of this word to replace the word ‘bokstāvs’ which had come from the German ‘Buchstabe’ – ‘letter’, and the rest, as they say, is history!
    Courtesy of the Latviešu etimoloģijas vārdnīca by Konstantīns Karulis.

  2. Eric says:

    Liels paldies again for upkeeping this thread!

    I apologise for the random questions I post, but I have another haha. How does Latvian translate these four English uses of to be?

    1. “The dog is an animal.”

    2. “The dog is in the garden.”

    3. “There is a dog in the garden.”

    4. “Here is a dog.”

    I’ve attempted one and two in Latvian but I don’t know if they are right and I don’t how to translate 3 and 4.

    1. Suns ir dzīvnieks.

    2. Suns ir dārzā.

    • Cori Rozentāle says:

      You are so random sometimes. (I don’t mind a bit.) :)

      1. Suns ir dzīvnieks.
      2. Suns ir dārzā.
      3. Suns ir dārzā.

      ‘There’ in sentence 3 is a “placeholder subject” or “empty subject” for English, it is unnecessary in Latvian. You could translate that sentence multiple ways… The dog is in the garden; in the garden there is a dog; there is a dog in the garden, etc. This is one where word-for-word translation is a mistake, Latvian doesn’t need empty subjects like English does. If you can boil down the statement and remove extraneous words that function as placeholders, you’ll have an easier time translating. Look at the meaning, not the construction.

      Here’s a link about the empty subject and “it” that explains it more in-depth. (It and There are both empty subjects.)

      If, however, you mean that you are pointing at a dog in a specific garden, as in “there in that garden is a dog” (with assumed pointing/demonstrating) then that would be “Tajā dārzā ir suns.”

      4. Šeit ir suns. Assuming the dog is in the immediate vicinity of the speaker. You could translate it in English as “there is a dog here”, I guess too. :) Another empty ‘there’, I might point out.

      • Evita says:

        I’m a native Latvian speaker and I would definitely translate the third one as “Dārzā ir suns”. The reason is that you should put the most important word at the end, and it seems that the dog is a new development (it wasn’t in the garden before) so you should leave it as the last word of the sentence.

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