Sons and daughters

When I used to teach mathematics I made a point, wherever I legitimately could, of introducing students to the Fibonacci numbers. The Medieval Italian mathematician for whom that sequence of numbers is named was Leonardo da Pisa, or ‘Leonard from Pisa,’ but Fibonacci was his patronymic: Fibonacci—analyzable in modern Italian as figlio di Bonaccio—means ‘son of Bonaccio.’ The Fi- of Fibonacci is from Latin filius ‘son,’ as we recognize in our borrowed adjective filial; someone who is afiliado/affiliated to a company is like a son to that fatherly company.

Latin filius evolved in Spanish, following the f –> h and li —> j transformations peculiar to that language, to the modern form hijo, but Spanish had earlier chosen not to followed through with patronymics of the Fibonacci type. Spanish preferred to go with family names that end in a descendant of the Latin genitive case, which indicated possession, and in this case descent; examples are Hernández, López, González, as explained in an earlier article in this column. In contrast to Spanish, Old French did follow through with the pattern seen in an Italian name like Fibonacci. Latin filius ‘son’ led in Old French to a subject case with the forms fils and fiz, where the letter z often represented, as it still does in German, a ts sound. And now you can understand English and Irish family names that came from Norman French and Anglo-French, names like Fitzgerald, Fitzwilliam, Fitzpatrick, and Fitzmorris, which mean respectively ‘son of Gerald,’ ‘son of William,’ ‘ son of Patrick,’ and ‘son of Morris.’

With all that emphasis on ‘sons of,’ it’s only fair to note that all these family names apply to daughters as well as sons. And, as I lightheartedly used to say to my students, if Fibonacci had had a daughter she could have been called Fifi Bonacci.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. georgettesullins
    Mar 05, 2012 @ 07:33:45

    And now I better understand all the “f’s” in Old Spanish…fijo, faser, fablar, etc. some of which still are in the Portuguese. Thank you for this.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Mar 05, 2012 @ 07:52:22

      You’re welcome. The f —> h change is indeed one of the things that distinguishes Spanish from Portuguese, which has fazer rather than hacer, filho rather than hijo, falar rather than hablar. The Old Spanish h would originally have had some breathiness to it, as the original f did.


  2. The Good Greatsby
    Mar 07, 2012 @ 20:01:38

    That poor Fifi Bonacci.


  3. shoreacres
    Mar 08, 2012 @ 16:11:28

    Ah – tucked in here may be the answer to my question. One of my favorite songs is Marisol’s version of Hablame del mar marinero. While I was reading I was wondering if hablame had undergone the same transformation. Apparently so.

    Strangely, I couldn’t find that form of the word in any conjugation charts for hablar.


  4. Steve Schwartzman
    Mar 08, 2012 @ 16:55:50

    Thanks for the link to the pretty song, which was new to me. The singing reminds me of songs from Portugal, which I guess isn’t surprising, given that Marisol is from neighboring Spain.

    Hablar comes from Latin fabulari ‘to speak, to converse,’ so our English word fable derives (via French) from the same source.

    The reason you won’t find háblame in most (or any) conjugation charts is that it’s two words conventionally written together: habla + me, ‘speak [to] me.’ (You’ll find habla given in a conjugation chart as the familiar form of the singular imperative.) The song is saying: “Speak to me of the sea, sailor.” (And note the laxity of the Internet site in leaving out the comma before marinero.)


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