AE Definition, Meaning, Usage: What Does AE Mean?

AE definiton

Æ

1. (Linguistics / Letters of the Alphabet (Foreign)) a digraph in Latin representing either a native diphthong, as in æquus, or a Greek αι (ai) in Latinized spellings, as in æschylus: now usually written ae, or e in some words, such as demon

2. (Linguistics / Letters of the Alphabet (Foreign)) a ligature used in Old and early Middle English to represent the vowel sound of a in cat

3. (Linguistics / Letters of the Alphabet (Foreign)) a ligature used in modern phonetic transcription also representing the vowel sound a in cat

What does AE mean?

Æ (minuscule: æ) is a grapheme formed from the letters a and e. Originally a ligature representing a Latin diphthong, it has been promoted to the full status of a letter in the alphabets of many languages. As a letter of the Old English alphabet, it was called æsc ‘ash tree' after the Anglo-Saxon futhorc rune ᚫ which it transliterated; its traditional name in English is still ash (IPA: /æʃ/).

Æ and æ were quite commonly used as abbreviations for Latin aetate or aetate sua meaning, roughly, "at the age of" N years (the implied construction being an ablative absolute); also the genitive aetatis suae, Nth year "of his/her age". In inscriptions and records, the most common use is for the age at death.

Æ can be used in written communication by two people who are in love as a dual number pronoun, replacing "we" and "us".

Different ways of using Æ

The typographical digraph æ or Æ and the letters ae - the two are treated as identical on this page - form notoriously one of the ways in which North American spelling differs from British habit - as (Fowler, 2000), says s.v. ae-, e-, "There is a tendency to simplify spellings with ae- in BrE to e- in AmE, e.g. esthetic for aesthetic and anemic for anaemic", adding, however, that "both types are used". The divergence dates back to Noah Webster himself, who defined AE in the first edition of his Dictionary in 1828 as "a diphthong in the Latin language; used also by the Saxon [~ Old English] writers. In derivatives from the learned languages, it is mostly superseded by e, and convenience seems to require it to be wholly rejected in anglicized words [AWE's emphasis]". He then instructs his audience "For such words as may be found with this initial combination, the reader will therefore search under the letter E."

In British English, there are three main areas in which the digraph is still used, either in ligature form (æ) or as separate letters (ae):

  • As a direct representation of proper names, and some common nouns labelling concepts, from cultures in which it was used, for example

    • in Old English Ælfred (now usually Alfred, as in Alfred the Great, b. 849, r.871-899), his grandson Æþelstan or Æðelstān(c. 895–939) (Athelstan), the first 'King of All England' (from 927), Æƿelfriƿ (Aethelfrith) and 'the first English poet', Caedmon. In such Old English words, the pronunciation is usually like the '-a-' in 'that' (IPA: /æ/, which is of course the same symbol).

    • in Latin

      • proper names like Æneas, and Virgil's great poem about him, the Æneid; Cæsar (see also caesarian - caesarian), and words on which it is usually replaced by a simple '-e-' nowadays, such as Ætna (now Etna) and Judæa (Judea). The pronunciation in English of Latin proper names is usually '-ee-' (IPA: /iː/; in Latin phrases, it may be '-ee-' or 'eye' (IPA: /aɪ/: see further advice at Latin Words and Phrases in English.

      • concepts like the aedilis (for which OED but not, oddly enough, Webster's Compact gives 'edile' as an alternative form), an official responsible for public buildings and related functions; praetor, another official, and paenula, a garment.

    • in Greek

      • proper nouns - Æschylus, Æsop (the adjective for whom Webster, 1828 gave as ESOPIAN, though deriving it from Aesop) and Achaeus (Ἀχαιός 'achaios).

      • Common nouns such as aegis (transmitted to English through Latin) and Athenaeum, which is also used as a proper name for several clubs, magazines etc.

The examples from Greek and Latin often change their pronunciation to the '-e-' of 'get' as they become naturalized in English. See also Pronunciation of Greek Proper Names.

  • Technical and academic words, usually taken directly from the 'learned languages Latin and Greek, such as

    • in biological and medical sciences, elements such as -aem-, or -haem- (British) or -[h]em- (US), from the Greek Greek αἷμα 'blood', 'h[a]emoglobin', 'h[a]emorrhage' etc, and with the prefix ἀν- 'without', or 'not' 'an[a]emic', rtc; Caesarian; paed- ('child'), for example paediatrics. (In US English, it is always spelled ped- for preference; in both British and American varieties, meanings to do with education are spelled 'ped-', for example pedantry )

    • in terms belonging to archaeology, or Ancient History, such as the prefixes palaeo- ("chiefly British variant of PALE-" (Merriam-Webster - OED says that pale- is "now chiefly N. Amer.); and archaeo-, for which neither Merriam-Webster nor OED recognize a form archeo-; and such terms as the fossilized species archaeopteryx and aepyornis

    • In other subjects which owe much to the classical languages, such as, in prosody, Caesura, and in Rhetoric, Aphæresis, and in mythology chimaera.

    • And various words appropriate in academic life, such as ægis (for which Webster's Collegiate gives egis as a variant), aegrotat and encyclop[a]edia. Several words normally spelled with the bare '-e-' nowadays in British English were formerly habitually spelled with the '-ae-', such as 'pr[a]efect' and 'Pr[a]esidium'.

  • The value of the letter combination -ae- (or æ) is chiefly in showing the etymology of a word.

    • (Originally it showed a writer's awareness of the Latin and Greek roots of the words written, so that 'ether' is first recorded in English as Aether (in 1587).. This was a direct transliteration of the Greek αἰθήρ meaning 'sky'. 'heavens' or 'space', which was its original meaning. Likewise, edify, from the Latin aedes 'building' (or 'dwelling'), was originally written in English as 'aedify'.

    • OED notes that when such learned words become popularized from the academic languages, they are spelled with '-e-'. It gives as examples words which in their older spellings are hardly recognizable to modern readers, such as 'phenomenon' (written from the 15th to the 17th centuries 'phaenomena', from the Latin transliteration phaenomena of the Greek plural τὰ ϕαινόμενα, 'things that appear'); 'Lyceum' (from 15th–18th centuries - erron[eously], says OED- 'lycæum', an over-academic English version of Latin transliteration Lycēum of Greek Λύκειον, neuter form of Λύκειος, epithet 'of Apollo', to whose temple the Lyceum was adjacent; 'museum' (written 'musaeum from the 16th century, which again appears an over-educated version of Latin mūsēum, 'a place holy to the Muses', 'a building set apart for study'); and 'era' [written 'aera' in the 16th to 18th centuries, a direct English version of the Latin aera, plural of the adjective aes 'brass', used substantively to mean 'a counter', which came to be used for '[the numbers which mark] a long period of time'. A word with a similar meaning is given the title aeon | eon, n. in OED, while Webster's Collegiate gives the main word as aeon, adding (as does OED) that in geology, the variant spelling eon is standard. Similarly, 'estuary' used to be written 'æstuary' (from the Latin æstuāri-um ‘tidal’, in its turn from æstus heat, boiling, bubbling, tide

      • It is in this sort of 'popularization', in OED's terms that Webster gave American English its freedom from the digraph: Merriam-Webster's Collegiate gives estivate as the regular form of OED's preferred 'aestivate'. (Aestivate, a rarer word than 'hibernate', means 'to pass the summer in'. It comes, oddly enough, from the same Latin root as 'estuary': æst-us 'heat' gave the adjective æstīv-us 'of summer, the hot season'; and an estuary is where tides bubble, as if being boiled.) In similar fashion, the Collegiate gives 'anesthesia' and its derivatives as the preferred forms of OED's 'anaesthesia', 'anaesthetic', 'anaesthetize' and 'anaesthetist' (from the Greek αἰσθητά (aisthēta), 'things perceptible by the senses' and adjective αἰσθητικ-ός (aisthetikos), both from the root αἰσθε- 'to perceive through the senses’, 'to feel'. Oddly, the Collegiate prefers 'aesthete' etc to 'esthete' - this is the word from which, with the addition of the Greek negative prefix ἄν- (an-), anaesthesia comes. See also Acetic - aesthetic - ascetic‎; and AWE has articles on Aetiology - etiolated, Aeroplane - airplane.

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