Are Quarks Made of Curd Cheese? The Link Between Quantum Physics & A Slavic Food Specialty
#language & literature
small, Are Quarks Made of
Curd Cheese? The Link
Between Quantum Physics
& A Slavic Food Specialty, Are Quarks Made of Curd Cheese? The Link Between Quantum Physics & A Slavic Food Specialty, full_quarks_twarog_link_770.jpg
Ever wondered about the nature of the universe and the role of quarks? Now, you can find out what links the word for the most elementary particle in the universe with the name of an ancient Slavic food specialty. And why that's James Joyce.
Surely, you've heard of quarks. In theoretical physics, the term quark denotes an elementary particle – a fundamental component of matter. The name itself was first used around 1963 by Murray Gell-Mann, one of the two physicists who posited the quark model.
The Scientist Behind The First Talkie
Gell-Mann later recollected that he had come across the word in one of his ‘occasional perusals’ of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. He found it in the phrase: ‘Three quarks for Muster Mark’ (page 383), adopting this for his theory. Interestingly, he preferred to pronounce it as ‘kwork’ – for which he had his own good arguments.
The scientist believed that the phrase ‘Three quarks for Muster Mark’ might be a distorted version of ‘Three quarts for Mister Mark’ – in which case the pronunciation of ‘kwork’ wouldn't be totally unjustified.
While Gell-Mann might have had his arguments for linking the origin of the Joycean phrase with a call for drinks at the bar – especially since the author was a renowned drinker– the majority of Joyce scholars is inclined to suspect an altogether different call behind this Finnegans fragment.
According to this hypothesis, the vendor's cry, which Joyce had likely picked up in some German marketplace (he was living in Germany at the time), must have sounded more like: ‘Drei Mark für muster Quark!’, which can be translated as: ‘Three Marks for excellent curd cheese!’
Quark is the German word for curd cheese – but it also just happens to be one of the odd few early loan words in Old German taken from a Western Slavic language, very likely from Lower Sorbian or Polish (twaróg).
The etymology of this Polish word goes back to the Proto-Slavic *tvarogb, which in turn goes back to *tvoriti (in Polish: tworzyć), meaning to make, create, form. This etymology is explained through the specific process necessary to produce twaróg – which was made by warming formed soured milk. (You can observe the same linguistic process in the formation of the French word for cheese, fromage, which comes the Latin formare, i.e. 'to form').
This means that quarks are, after all, made of curd cheese. At least in the linguistic sense. It seems like this is not the worst etymology for a word that denotes the very basic element that forms our reality. It would also mean that the Polish language and Polish twaróg are closer to the core of the English lexicon and reality itself than one might think.
Quarks, Elephants & Pierogi: Poland in 100 Words – Mikołaj Gliński, Matthew Davies & Adam Żuławski
Written by Mikołaj Gliński, Jun 2016