Obscure Punctuation #5

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The Tilde

The tilde is a sign that many of us know to mean “about” or “approximately”. Being that I am a slave to a relatively approximate science, this sign proves itself useful on a daily basis. I know that there are a lot of biologists that might slap me for saying that, so let me clarify. The tilde is an approximate when concerning variable traits like height, width, color, pigmentation— general morphological examples. For instance, I might describe the E. coli growth on a plate as follows: “the growth on the plate was a sleek chartreuse sheen.” Although that is oddly specific, it is still only an approximation. My lab partner would simply say “metallic green.” Regardless, both describe in relative terms, a shade of green, i.e. ~green.

The tilde is rich with history and has had a variety of uses throughout all written languages. However, I only plan on hitting on a few of its uses in this post. The name tilde comes from Latin for “title” or “superscription”. Technically, it’s not all that obscure, but it is not used regularly in the modern English vernacular other than as a symbol to represent an approximation. Its other uses primarily consist of using it as an indicator for a change in the way a word is pronounce or a letter is spoken in the context of a word. In Ancient Greek it was used to indicate a change in pitch in a word, in Portuguese it is used to indicate the nasalization of the base vowel in a word, in Vietnamese it used over a vowel to represent a drop in tone. The list goes on.

I think it’s evident that the tilde, outside of English, is used primarily as a punctuation mark that indicates a change in how a word is spoken. This makes its uses outside of what we know it for relatively useless being that English is not a heavily flexion, tone or pitch based language (not unless you’re in an argument). This is an interesting an concept since I have had people who speak another first language mention to me how strange or boring it is that English is such a “flat” language. When I asked them to clarify it was explained to me that almost nothing in our language is interpreted to mean a separate word in English simply through tonal or inflexion based changes. At first I was insulted and I then realized that this flatness is what makes English so accessible for things like sarcasm and was no longer at odds with having my apparently small and emotionless language insulted.

— Deirdre McCormick, Poetry Editor

Editor’s Note: Deirdre McCormick is a third year Biology Major with a minor in Creative Writing.  She is deeply passionate for both topics and that is evident in much of her writing endeavors.  She was also recently published in Lewis University’s own Windows magazine.

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