British and American English have many difference both in vocabulary and spelling. But I just learned that they also use af few different letters. While copying a British text for a blog and typing the British word “anæsthetic”, I stopped.  I knew that the Brits spelled “anesthetic” with an “ae” instead of an “e”, but as I look carefully at the text I noticed that the two letters were printed as one blurred letter.  Because I wanted to quote the text faithfully, I researched how to get my Mac to type that letter, thus, yesterday’s “Mac Diacritics” post.  While looking, I also learned that those class of letters were called “ligatures” — a new linguistic word for me, so I explored it.

For fun, I made a pictorial collage of my exploration of “ligature”. Since this blog discusses religion I have to mention my discovery that tracing the etymology back, it seems ligature and religion are related to the Latin word “ligare”.  This ‘etymology” may not be accurate but indeed, it is a commonly quoted etymology from ancient times.

Also related to “ligare” are medical words:  the anatomical word “ligament” and the word “ligature” used in surgery for a knot used to tie around a vessel to stop flow.  Below this diagram I discuss the linguistic ligatures shown.

On the right side of my diagram, I show Typographic Ligatures from the following languages:

  • English: First, as I mentioned, the Brits use the Æ ligature and the Œ ligature). Sometimes they use the actual ligature but often they type them separately.  I also learned that the ampersand is a combination of “e” and “t” from the Latin word “et” which means “and” in English.
  • German:  a letter representing a double “s” is a ligature of a classic “long S” and a “small s”.
  • Tibetan:  Tibetan is packed full of ligatures.  For instance, the Tibetan word for “stone” is “rdo”. The word is a single glyph ligature as you see in the collage.  It is composed of these three letters:
    r–>    + d–>     + o–>   ོ   .  Sorry if your browser does not display Tibetan.
    In Tibetan, many of the stacked consonant ligatures are historical deadweights and not pronounced (much like the g and h in the English word “light”  but more abundant).
  • Chinese/Japanese:  Finally, if you’ve gotten this far, the Chinese character shown in the diagram is the combination of three characters to mean hemorrhoid. Read my post describing the hemorrhoid character and how to treat hemorrhoids.

Hope this post helps bind these words for you!


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

16 responses to “Ligature

  1. Gdeb

    In french also, we are supposed to use œ and æ (and Œ Æ). But most people don’t do it for two reasons : they don’t know how to type it, or they don’t even know that it is supposed to be the proper spelling. So, most people will type cœur as coeur for example.

    Also, we have more ligatures I think : tt (I can’t type it, it’s two t close together with a shared horizontal bar). Usually, it is done automatically by a correct software, like LaTeX.

  2. @ Gdeb,
    Thank you kindly for the French story. I think the Brits also, usually don’t type the ligature for the same reason you stated. May I ask what you use LaTeX for?

  3. Gdeb

    I use LaTeX for pretty much every document I need to write : letters, research statements, notes, papers, essays, resumes… 🙂

  4. Thanx Gdeb. I will have to try LaTeX someday. Being a mathematician, I am sure you need it more than most. Good to see ya here again!

  5. CRL

    Of course, thanks to the shape of the German s set, many Americans think it’s just a fancy looking B, and pronounce it as such >______________<
    While I only know a few words of German, it's become one of my pet peeves.

  6. @ CRL
    So how do you pronounce a fancy “b”?

  7. CRL

    Something like an sz? Looking at my post, I *may have* exaggerated my emotions a bit…

  8. Ian

    Interesting. I didn’t know ae was a ligature: I thought it was derived from the old-english letter “ash”. So a single letter, not a typographic abbreviation of two. And I assumed oe had a similar origin. But the wikipedia was a bit equivocal on what, if any words, had ae derived from the old english letter and which were ligatured combinations of separate ‘a’ and ‘e’.

    I associated “ligature” with glyphs such as fi, ffi, and stylistic combinations like ct.

    And I agree with Gdeb, it isn’t worth trying to typeset stuff yourself, when Latex is around. Its a bitch to set up, but makes light work of good typesetting.

  9. @ Ian & Gdeb
    Do you guys use LaTeX in blogging? Any suggestions on how to get into it or why I would? You know me, I love new things. Thanx.

    @ Ian
    I am not sure what you are saying. “Ligature”, as I understand it, is a new letter formed from 2 or more other letters. While a “glyph” is merely a way of representing a letter (ligature letter or monoletter). Thus, for an ligature there are many different “glyphs”.
    See here.
    Am I mistaken?

  10. Gdeb

    hmmm, that’s a good question. I think (but i am not sure) that HTML does not support many typographical (is that a word?) features, such as ligatures, kerning, small caps, automatic linebreaks or justification (and for scientists, proper equations typesetting). So, LaTeX is probably not appropriate for blogging.

    LaTeX is more used for document creation. For example, you write an essay and you want to output it in pdf (pdf, or postscripts allow you to keep your typesetting). I think that many newspaper could make a good use of LaTeX for example.

    However, here’s an idea for blogging : imagine that you write and publish your blog like usual, but, you also provide nice looking pdf to download your posts. It could be nice, and you could even after a while compile all those posts into a shortbook for example.

    It could be done in several ways. For example, with some custom scripts/programs, you could write you post in a simple format :

    \title{Post title}

    \section{First section}

    text… text…

    \section{Second section}

    other text…


    then your script could process that file and generate both your blog post (html?) and a nice pdf. And the html file would have a link to download your pdf.

    But in you never used LaTeX before, I suggest you try instead to write simple documents to try it out before! It took me a few years to get at my proficiency level, so it is definitely not a simple tool. (think more like a professional editing/publishing program)

  11. rautakyy

    @Sabio, in Finnish we have two letters that are simply glyphs ä and ö (I am sorry, if your browser does not present Scandinavian glyphs but they are an a and an o with dots on top. The swedes have the same as us, but the Danes and the Norvegians use instead of ä the same ligature of a and e as in your old english and they have a separate sign for ö. So the same letter is not so much a ligature even in Danish as it is in english, though one might claim it is a combination of those two vocals.

    As to religion, in Finnish we have no separate word for faith as such. The closest we get is “usko” but that is directly derived from the verb “uskoa” wich is literally to believe. Hence, a Finn has no faith but he/she either believes in something or not. This may seem insignificant, but I think there is a profound meaning to understand faith as a separate concept from actually believing. I mean that a person may choose to hold faith on something, but what you actually find believable is not an aware choise. If one chooses to believe something that does not seem to be believable, it requires self betreyal. One “binds” oneself into something as a sort of effort of will. Or a leap of faith.

    Sorry, if this is offtopic, but that is what your chart reminded me of.

  12. @rautakky
    Thanx for the info. We believe in love in a way that, by your definition, is a “self-betrayal”. But that is another post.

  13. Earnest

    I was wondering if we could link ligature to the Roman fasces? Then we could link fascism in general to religion.

  14. @ Earnest
    It took me a while to see where you were coming from with that question.
    So, for other readers:
    Fasces” = A bundle of wood with an axe used as a symbol of power and authority in the Roman empire.

    Etymology of “fasces” comes from PIE: “bhasko = “band or bundle”
    Similarly “Ligatura” is a band. (also, “fascia” is a medical term of related origin which is likely where Earnest ties in to all this).
    Finally, the Fasces symbol was used by Italian fascists. So Earnest wants religion to be a fascist movement. Very nice.

    But my question: How much coffee did you have before writing that one?

  15. Thank you for directing me here, Sabio. I found this to be quite interesting!

  16. I really like your “Spiritual Facts” graphic in the sidebar. 🙂

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