Thursday, November 26, 2015


One iott or one tytle of the lawe shall not scape. - Matthew 5:18, the Tindale Bible 
"I like the idea of a whole class devoted to dots", I said in my German class the other day. Everyone laughed; they all thought I was joking. (I usually am). Actually, I was being serious. (I usually am. It's possible to be both).

It often comes down to a matter of the little dots and spots around the letters and numbers, I find. Every alphabet must have a use for those teeny-weeny dots that hover above or under or around the other letters, whether they be a full stop or an accent or a dash between the letters or those familiar spots hanging above the lower case 'i' and the lower case 'j'. 'Tittle' is the lovely technical term for these dots. What business do they have, defying gravity above their letters, anyway? (What business do I have, for that matter, thinking of the letters as standing upright? Books are often meant to be held more horizontally - surely the letters are depicted as horizontal?) And then there are the little dots below the question mark and the exclamation mark - ought we to expect them to fall away or to one day be helplessly crushed beneath the weight of the respective marks as gravity asserts itself?

It is possible to derive an endless amount of amusement from a couple of little dots on a page or a screen; however, the Germans seem to do it better than most of us. Not only do they have all the usual full stops and hyphens and tittles, but they have the semi-inverse colon, better known to you and me as the umlaut. You know, those two little dots above most of the vowels. My enthusiasm for umlauts is immoderate in the extreme, even though I cannot ever quite remember when to put them in*; however, it's in the matter of numbers that they manage to really confuse everyone.

Whereas we would signify a decimal place with a sensible dot (period, full stop, tittle-without-a-letter-to-bother-it, or, in German, punkt), the practice in die Deutschland is to pop in a comma in that same spot. Meanwhile, in the middle of a long number, where we would tend to place in a comma before every three digits for clarity, the Germans mostly don't bother - either spacing the digits apart, or putting in a - well, I'm afraid to say, a punkt. Got that? So where we use a full stop, the Germans use a comma, and where we use a comma, the Germans use a space or a full stop. Oh, and another substitute I hadn't been aware of: our symbol for division - '÷' - which Google informs me is known as 'the obelus' - is replaced, in German, by a colon (or a retrograde umlaut, or a retrograde-semi-inverse-colon**).

Full stops! Commas! Umlauts! Colons! Periods! What with all these blots and blobs and dots and dashes splotting and clashing into one another, it's a wonder we don't see them getting into one another's way and the punkts start groping the tittles and an asterisk and obelus get into the magic potion again and begin causing merry havoc in the marginalia. Anyway, that's about all I wanted to say, but while we're on the subject of dots and dashes and punctuation, can I just put in a word for spotty animals? There's nothing nicer than a well-punctuated animal, I find, and did you know, it's not just spotty coats many animals have; both our cats have a dot in the roof of their mouth. Occasionally when they yawn I see it, and I can't help but murmur to myself: "Hmm, yes. Good punkt. Very good punkt indeed."

*I suppose I could just start off by putting a couple of umlauts at the top of the page and letting the letters come in later. 

**I may have made some of these terms up, but they are totally accurate. 

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