Tuesday, 2 December 2008


I'm struck that the Latin sibilus (the word behind sibilant) apparently meant both 'a hissing' and 'a whistling' ('sibilo: to hiss, to whistle'). I can see, of course, that whistling is a kind of hissing, or perhaps that hissing is a kind of whistling; but I wonder if 'whistling' carried the negative connotations of hissing (Lewis and Short: 'a contemptuous hissing, a hissing at or off') for the Romans. There's even a word (sibilatus) that apparently means 'a hissing whistling.' To my ear these two sounds register very differently: the hiss a blanket white-noise, the whistle capable of exquisite harmonic musical beauty. But perhaps this is only in my head, not in the sounds themeslves.

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