[NetBehaviour] nota bene

Max Herman maxnmherman at hotmail.com
Sun Jan 30 17:43:46 UTC 2022

Hi all,

Trying to learn a bit of Italian here and there to better understand Leonardo, I looked up the etymology for "note" yesterday.

Instant internet facts might not be true but it does appear to go back quite clearly to the Latin nota:

'c. 1300, "a song, music, melody; instrumental music; a bird-song; a musical note of a definite pitch," from Old French note and directly from Latin nota "letter, character, note," originally "a mark, sign, means of recognition"' --

the above being interesting as always and to many artists and writers of the past I think.  The following I did not know, continuing the above sentence:

-- 'which traditionally has been connected to notus, past participle of noscere "to come to know," but de Vaan reports this is "impossible," and with no attractive alternative explanation, it is of unknown origin.'

It seemed very odd to me that such a basic word as "note" or nota could be of unknown origin.  I can see why historically linguists might wish noscere to be the origin, but it doesn't make much sense except perhaps as a reflection of the observers' bias (since their profession is largely premised on a definition of marks as knowledge).

Last year I had become interested in the Italian word nodo, knot, which is used often by Dante and of course appears visually in great profusion in both medieval visual art (both Islamic and European) and Leonardo's works.  I had learned that nodo is from the same root as "net," the PIE root *ned-, meaning "to bind, tie."  This is the root of "nexus" and "connect" as well as node, and of course "knot."

"Note" is a significant concept in some ways because it relates music to words and writing to speech.  Could nota derive also from *ned-, given the many similar derivations?

I'm further reminded of a Shakespeare class I took once in which the professor emphasized the Elizabethan pun on "nothing" and "noting" which were both pronounced, apparently, "no-ting."  I.e., the pun is "neither noticing nor writing is a thing."  Is knotting a thing?  Much Ado About Nothing is also much ado about coupling and "tying the knot."

It seemed to me that nota could be another derivation from *ned-, to tie or bind.  Letters in script are kind of like knotted squiggles in many cases.  They "tie" a sound or shape (ah or A) to a word or a piece of a word.  Is it possible for linguists to have overlooked this?  If examined and rejected, was it done so accurately?  If yes, is it still interesting or useful as a flight of fancy -- notes as knots?

Dante speculated in his non-fiction work Il Convivio (The Banquet) that knots and knotting were the basis of all language and literature.  He even made a very charming visual diagram, quite possibly his own invention from whole cloth, claiming that the word autore -- author -- derived from an obscure, supposedly Latin term auieo, of questionable existence, formed by drawing a knot-line through the vowels A, E, I, O, U, in the sequence first, last, middle, second, fourth.  This word purportedly was created to show how authors knot together the vowels, which in turn knot together the consonants into words, thence into sentences, paragraphs, chapters, and books.  It's a marvelous, and marvelously modern, bit of literary theater so to speak which even prefigures aspects of Shakespeare's forays into modernity.

Leonardo proposed an analogous idea that line, by means of a finger-touch on a cave-wall, was the root of all writing, numbers, visual art, techne, and math, since all of the symbols and images were ultimately made from lines and squiggles.

Despite Dante's auieo being almost certainly an imagination of his own making it does seem very plausible to me that nota derives from the same origin as nodo.  What ties together a net but nodes of knots?  What are notes if not knots in a net?  The visual reality of this, or potential reality, seems best illustrated by ornate knot-works such as Leonardo's Sala delle Asse (a trompe l'oeil ceiling of intricately interwoven tree-branches mentioned here onlist if I recall), many of his images of garments and fabrics, knot-designs for the Academia Leonardo Vici, and innumerable shapes both abstract and non- in his notebooks, as well as vast realms of other medieval, renaissance, and ancient knot images and geometry.

My sense is that this is so obvious, even trite, that it must have been looked into already ad nauseum, so I don't want to present it as necessarily new.  If it is, that strikes me as very odd which is neither here nor there perhaps.  If trite and utterly debunked, is there any chance of revitalizing it in the context of say string theory?  Knot theory is also still a live question in various fields.  I'm continuing to research and will report if I find anything interesting.

One last tangent: Leonardo's father and grandfather (the latter raised him as an acknowledged but illegitimate offspring of the former) were notaries, plural notai, singular notaio or notaia, who were kind of the attorneys of the time who used special language to create binding contracts.  Any connection to nodo or *ned- aside, are these not nodes and nets, ties and bindings, with undeniably contemporary descendants?

All best,


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