Sunday, April 26, 2015

What’s a Book?

Here is a picture of a library patron holding an object. Do you know the name of the object blocking the student’s face? There is no doubt that most English speakers would call the
object a “book” and the person is holding the book is in a library. “Book” has synonyms such as codex (from the Latin meaning a tablet for writing), volume (from the Old French and Latin meaning scroll or to roll) or tome (from the French), however, those words have more specialized meanings than book. In the library world “codex” is a type of book with a cover and pages as opposed to a scroll. A scroll is book that has pages rolled up. “Tome” is used as a $50 word for book or for a large, valuable or very special book. “Volume” is used for a one out of a collection of books such as one volume of a series. “Volumes” are individual books while a multi-volume set has one title.

What if another language speaker was describing the object? In Latin it is liber which is the root the French livre which gives us our English word library. In Italian or Spanish (libro) and other romance languages the words are similar. However, the Latin word for library, bibliotheca, is from the Greek word biblos (meaning book). In French (bibliothèque), in Spanish (biblioteca), and German (Bibliothek), the word for library is from the Latin via Greek. The Greek biblos is the root for bible, bibliography, and bibliophile. The German Buch is the source for the English book. Don’t you wonder why we don’t use “biblioary” or “bibliothek” when we want to visit a home for books?

To visit a book store in German you would look for a Buchhandlung. In France you would visit a librairie. I am amused when students confuse the library with a book store. Are they thinking in French or confusing the role of the library and bookstore? Libraries acquire, store, and help patrons retrieve knowledge. They don’t buy book for resale as a business. (Don’t tell me about used book sales. That is not the primary activity of a library.) We don’t charge directly for library materials. The library is supported by the fees paid by students and other stakeholders.

To the Yiddish speaker the object could be a bukh or a sefer depending if it is a secular or religious book.


April 27, 2015  I fixed two minor typos that readers pointed out.  Spell checker does not find all the mistakes when using so many languages.   The /v/ and /b/ sounds are very close.  Sometimes the same root is expressed in one language with a /v/ and another with a /b/.  In French libre means "free" and is the root for the English "liberty" and "liberal."  It is not the root of "library."  In Hebrew the /v/ and /b/ sounds are expressed with the same consonant bet ב.  The only way to differentiate between the sounds is the dot (called dagesh) inside the letter.  There are grammatical rules for when the letter has the dot and when it does not.