What Does ‘Understand’ Have to do With Standing Under?

Understand seems like a pretty straightforward English word. It comes directly from Old English, it’s composed of two simpler words, under and stand, and it’s had its current meaning, to comprehend, since our earliest records of it. Still, it’s something of an etymological mystery. What does “standing under” have to do with understanding?

Most of our metaphors for understanding have to do with getting, grasping, or taking. When we understand we “get it,” “catch the drift” or “get a handle on it.” The root of comprehend is the Latin prehendere, grasp. Perceive comes from capere, “take hold of.” Many languages refer to these metaphors in their vocabulary of understanding.

But the “standing under” metaphor doesn’t seem to show up anywhere else. In the languages most closely related to English, the stand idea does come into play, but the words for understand have a different metaphor at work. German verstehen, Dutch verstaan, and Scandinavian forstå are all related the Old English word, forstandan, which meant either “stand in front of” or “stand away/apart from.” This spatial arrangement has ties to another common metaphor that relates being able to see something with understanding (as in I see, or speculate, from Latin for “look at”) and to another that relates understanding to the idea of separating from (discern, from Latin for “separate”). 

Scholars have been arguing about the motivations for Germanic verbs of understanding for a long time now and plenty of explanations have been proposed. One holds that the under- prefix also meant between or among, and to understand was to stand between things in order to separate and discern among them. Another holds that Old English forstandan got mixed up with no-longer surviving synonyms for understand like undergetan (under get), underniman (under take), and underthencan (under think), but in that case it’s still not clear how those other words used under to relate to the idea of comprehension.

We may never know what the original coiners of understand had in mind, but that hasn't stopped us from making good use of it for over 1000 years. We get it anyway.

Designer Reimagines the Spanish Alphabet With Only 19 Letters

According to designer José de la O, the Spanish alphabet is too crowded. Letters like B and V and S and Z are hard to tell apart when spoken out loud, which makes for a language that's "confusing, complicated, and unpractical," per his design agency's website. His solution is Nueva Qwerty. As Co.Design reports, the "speculative alphabet" combines redundant letters into single characters, leaving 19 letters total.

In place of the letters missing from the original 27-letter Spanish alphabet are five new symbols. The S slot, for example, is occupied by one letter that does the job of C, Z, and S. Q, K, and C have been merged into a single character, as have I and Y. The design of each glyph borrows elements from each of the letters it represents, making the new alphabet easy for Spanish-speakers to learn, its designer says.

Speculative Spanish alphabet.
José de la O

By streamlining the Spanish alphabet, de la O claims he's made it easier to read, write, and type. But the convenience factor may not be enough to win over some Spanish scholars: When the Royal Spanish Academy cut just two letters (CH and LL) from the Spanish alphabet in 2010, their decision was met with outrage.

José de la O has already envisioned how his alphabet might function in the real world, Photoshopping it onto storefronts and newspapers. He also showcased the letters in two new fonts. You can install New Times New Roman and Futurysma onto your computer after downloading it here.

[h/t Co.Design]

ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Big Questions
Why Does Japan Have Blue Traffic Lights Instead of Green?
ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
ANTTI T. NISSINEN, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In Japan, a game of Red Light, Green Light might be more like Red Light, Blue Light. Because of a linguistic quirk of Japanese, some of the country’s street lights feature "go" signals that are distinctly more blue than green, as Atlas Obscura alerts us, making the country an outlier in international road design.

Different languages refer to colors very differently. For instance, some languages, like Russian and Japanese, have different words for light blue and dark blue, treating them as two distinct colors. And some languages lump colors English speakers see as distinct together under the same umbrella, using the same word for green and blue, for instance. Again, Japanese is one of those languages. While there are now separate terms for blue and green, in Old Japanese, the word ao was used for both colors—what English-speaking scholars label grue.

In modern Japanese, ao refers to blue, while the word midori means green, but you can see the overlap culturally, including at traffic intersections. Officially, the “go” color in traffic lights is called ao, even though traffic lights used to be a regular green, Reader’s Digest says. This posed a linguistic conundrum: How can bureaucrats call the lights ao in official literature if they're really midori?

Since it was written in 1968, dozens of countries around the world have signed the Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals, an international treaty aimed at standardizing traffic signals. Japan hasn’t signed (neither has the U.S.), but the country has nevertheless moved toward more internationalized signals.

They ended up splitting the difference between international law and linguists' outcry. Since 1973, the Japanese government has decreed that traffic lights should be green—but that they be the bluest shade of green. They can still qualify as ao, but they're also green enough to mean go to foreigners. But, as Atlas Obscura points out, when drivers take their licensing test, they have to go through a vision test that includes the ability to distinguish between red, yellow, and blue—not green.

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