Friday, May 27, 2011

Complex Numbers

Numbers should be so easy.  What is good from one to ten also works from 21 -30 or 81-90.  Of course the 11-16 period is rough, just like teenagers.  The period ends eventually and does not return.  In other words, as Spock would say, numbers are logical.

The truth is that they are not, at least in many languages.  The worst offender in my mind is French, which requires advanced math skills to figure out a phone number.  If someone’s phone number is 15 63 78 97, it comes out: quinze, soixante trois, soixante dix huit, quarter- vingts dix- sept. That comes out as fifteen, sixty three, sixty ten and eight, and four twenties ten and seven in English.  The first is a teen and the second is normal.  However, the third requires me to practice addition while the fourth is for math majors, involving both multiplication and addition.  Even more absurd, the French make of the Belgium for saying septante and nonante for seventy and ninety, eliminating all that calculation.

The Russian language also has its peculiarities.  First, all numbers in a series, even if that number is inside a number as пятьдесят [pidicyat], where  пять is five and десят is ten, i.e. fifty, must be changed to the correct case, such as пятидесяти [pitidecyati].  Even more curious is that the case of the noun following any numbers is determined by the last number only, ignoring all previous numbers.  This creates the following logical absurdity in translation: I have three hundred thousand, four hundred and twenty one reader of my blog.  The word reader is singular because the last number is one.  By the way, it is not true about the actual current number of readers.

Hebrew has an interesting variation in numbers.  Letters are often used as numbers, especially in religious documents and the Hebrew calendar.  The letter  י [yud] represents the amount of ten while the letters ה [heh] and ו [vav] represent five and six, respectively.  When referring to the 15th and 16th day of a month or verse, the logical combinations are not used.  Instead, טו and טז [nine and six / seven] are written.  The reason for this is that  יה  and  יו are abbreviations for God. 

So, as any student of algebra knows, numbers are not just a matter of abc.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Long Goodbye

Partings are so difficult, in any language.  The terrible feeling of leaving a loved one is aggravated by the necessity to choose the right words.   People have a choice, in almost all languages.

The remarkable aspect of the saying good bye is that the range of choices is similar in many languages.

For example, an informal, quick departure is punctuated by a bye, salut, or пока [paka] in English, French, and Russian, respectively.  The standard going-away is goodbye, au revoir, and до свидания [da cvidaniya], which is remarkably similar to the Hebrew  להתראות  [lehitraot], i.e. till we meet again].  A brief absence is a Tata for now (TTFN), á tout á l’heure (or if you prefer, á bientôt), and до скорой встречи [do skoroi vstrechi].  A long trip begins with happy trails, bon voyage, and счастливого пути [schaslivava puti].  Finally, for those dramatic movie scenes (i.e. the end of the Titantic), we have farewell, á dieu, and прощай [proshai].

However, I won’t be so melodramatic.  As General Macarthur supposedly said, I shall return, and he did.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Able-bodied Words

English spelling is rather confusing, to put it mildly.  Native speakers spend (or used to, anyways) years mastering and memorizing the order of letters for a given meaning.  It is not just an intellectual exercise either.  I have no hair is rather a different problem than I have no heir or even I have no hare.  Not having a good visual memory, I often struggled with able versus ible. Do I drink potable or potible water?  Being born before the day of Office Spell Check, I had to either look in the dictionary or discover a rule. 

The rule I found, which works most of time, is that able follows an actual verb while ible follows a root, noun, or adjective.  For example, learning English is both feasible and doable. It is also both reasonable and sensible to learn other languages.

You will many ibles in this verse from the song “When you are old and grey” by the great American musical satirist (and math professor from my alma mater, the University of California at Santa Cruz):

“An awful debility, a lessened utility, a loss of mobility is strong possibility.  In all probability, I’ll lose my virility and you your fertility and desirability.  And this liability of total sterility will lead to hostility and sense of futility.  So let’s act with agility while we still have the facility for we’ll soon reach senility and lose the ability.”

All the “able-bodied” words follow the rule.

To end this blog, I’ll cite the end of the song:

“So please remember, when I leave in December, I told you so in May.”

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Thinking of "You"

The pronoun you provides an interesting view of society.  While it is true that all languages (as far as I know) have a second person form, the number and uses of these forms vary from language to language and even from culture to culture of the same language.
Hebrew and Arabic are very concerned about gender.  Both the singular and plural forms of you have masculine and feminine versions, making writing instruction manuals very interesting.  Ata and Atem 9 (singular and plural) are the masculine forms while at and aten are the female forms in Hebrew.   This clear distinction reflects the clear role differences in society.  For example, among Druze and religious Jews , men and women naturally segregate themselves when socializing.
European countries, by contrast, place their emphasis on status.  The informal form in French is tu, which is used when talking to dogs, children, friends, and family.  In the past, it wasn’t even used between husband and wife in some circles.  Some people were and are even insulted when addressed in the tu form.  French children learn to use vous, the formal form, on anyone who looks like an adult unless that person is close family.  I personally remember hearing a child say vous to me on the Paris metro.  I was 16 years old.  It made feel so adult.  Interesting, most French speakers from North Africa very quickly turn to the tu.  Apparently, it is too hot and/or too poor there to stand on ceremony.
English is the egalitarian language.  King James’s thee and thou have long since been replaced by the catch-all you, good for young and old, rich and poor.  In my opinion, this reflects the more open nature of English-speaking society, especially the United States and Australia, where rags-to-riches-to rags in three generations keeps everybody humble.
I would be interested in knowing how you is expressed in other languages.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Joys of Russian (Translation)

I have the pleasure of translating of several languages into English.  Working from Russian is by far the most challenging and tiring.  The reason is that each sentence is small jigsaw puzzle required serious thought of a grammatical nature.
The reason for this is the problem of word order.  Western European Latin-based languages are word order rigid for the most part.  The difference between The dog chases the cat and The cat chases the dog has nothing to do with the words and entirely to do with which noun is before the verb.  In other words, as Chomsky describes in this theory of universal grammar, the actor is before the verb and the receiver of the action is after the verb. 
Slavic languages, by contrast, use endings to mark the grammatical function, i.e. subject, direct object, indirect object, possessor, etc.  For example, in Russian, the various forms of the word книга [kniga] (book) include книгу [knigu], книге  [knigye], and книгой [knigoy], to mention a few.  Therefore, the actual word order of sentence is mainly a matter of style, not actual content.  The subject can be at the end of a sentence and still be understood.  Dostoevsky is quite fond of sentences going on for ten lines or so with the subject at the end.  I, as a student of the language at the time, was not so happy.
Moreover, any phrases describing those nouns are placed before the adjective, the opposite of English.  To demonstrate, the English sentence The police car whose lights are flashing is trying to catch the car that is speeding down the road becomes Whose lights are flashing police car is trying to catch the speeding down the road car in Russian.
The end result of this word play is that translator tackles each sentence in Russian by figuring out what the subject, verb, and object are and then adding the other elements.  In other words, each sentence is a logic puzzle of varying complexity in itself.  Believe me.  This can be hard work.