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The Mystery of Language: Numbers

December 22, 2011 Leave a comment

So I’m in Osman’s Continental Supermarket and there’s an Arab couple in there looking for fish because they’ve got Christians coming for Christmas and they aren’t sure exactly what type of fish it is Christians eat at Christmas or something. (They should have asked me. I could have told them: turkey. Anyway, I thought it was Fridays that Christians eat fish? I digress…)

As I head towards the checkout I overhear the husband saying to his wife:

عشرة كيلو ارز 10.99.

(’ashar kilo aruzz, ten ninety-nine.)

I’ve written it that way because it’s exactly how he said it. Thing is, it translates as “Ten kilos of rice, £10.99.” So why is the ten of kilos in Arabic and the ten of pounds in English? It makes obvious sense, but then in other ways it doesn’t. Perhaps it’s just the casual speech of a true bilingual.

Anyway, more importantly, children, since you’re here and you’d like to know – these:

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Arabic numbers, right? No! These are Arabic numbers:

٠‎ ١‎ ٢‎ ٣‎ ٤‎ ٥‎ ٦‎ ٧‎ ٨‎ ٩

So if those are real Arabic numbers, what do the Arabs call them? ‘Numbers’, presumably, in much the same we in Yorkshire call Yorkshire Tea ‘tea’ and the Germans get confused about measles. But, no, they call them ‘Indian Numbers’.

Alas, they appear to be just as confused as we are.

० १ २ ३ ४ ५ ६ ७ ८ ९

Yes, those are Indian numbers. What do the Indians call them? I don’t know. Let’s hope it’s just numbers.*

*(For the record, the Oxford English Dictionary suggests you can differentiate between the numbers as used in Europe, the US and elsewhere by using a lower case spelling of arabic – i.e. ‘arabic numerals’ – 1, 2, 3, etc. – as opposed to ‘Arabic numerals’ – ١,‎ ٢,‎ ٣, etc. I don’t know if there’s a name for this convention of de-capitalising adjectives otherwise derived from proper nouns, but it’s one I use generally: spartan  or byzantine rather than Spartan or Byzantine when not used literally: “The Byzantine emperor alone in a spartan room; a Spartan general, a byzantine plan.” No marks for historical accuracy, obviously.)

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The Maltese Fact Hunt

December 9, 2011 Leave a comment

I have been to Malta twice. Once when Warner Bros. were paying (don’t ask) and once when Sheffield United were paying (don’t ask). Or possibly the Maltese government, I don’t know (don’t ask; I’m not really as exciting as these random snippets make me sound). On both occasions I spoke English. Defiantly so, in fact. Although what I was defying, I’m not really sure, since Malta is officially bilingual and the ling of those bies which isn’t Maltese is English.

Since I last went to Malta, in 2009, I have started learning Arabic. In fact, looking back at my old notebooks, it looks like I started learning Arabic only a month or so after returning from Malta, though the two weren’t connected.

Maltese is something of a curiosity. It’s a Semitic language, an offshoot of Arabic in much the way that English harks ultimately from an ancient German language, and French, Spanish, Portuguese and so on from Latin. The big difference with Maltese being that its ancestor, Classical Arabic – or something very much like it – is still spoken today. By about 300 million people.

The fact that Maltese is a descendant of Arabic tends to surprise even a lot of very knowledgeable, well-travelled folks, though does elicit knowing nods from those who’ve been there and witnessed its truly unpronounceable place names.

That’s not a prank. (For the record, it’s pronounced ‘Trejqet Inżul Ix-Xemx’.)

The oddity of Maltese is more than just a linguistic claim to fame, though. It reflects the islands’ importance out of all proportion to their size, and their central location at the crossroads of history: its people have been Christian since Roman times but speak a language derived from a form of Arabic that arrived centuries later; it’s a country where 98% of the population is Catholic but call their god Allah. Separating it, ultimately, from Arabic (or more accurately the other Arabic dialects) is the influence in the interim of the Normans, Italians and British.

Given that I’ve been to Malta (and, in fact, my late grandmother grew up there, and spoke Maltese in her youth) and that I’ve since reached a level of Arabic where not only can I butcher the language but where people will know I’m doing it, I was curious as to how similar the two actually remain. So, today, on a short soiree to the library to get out of the rain, I picked up a somewhat ancient copy of Teach Yourself Maltese. (Indeed, there is no less ancient copy; it was written in the 1960s and is long out of print – supply and demand and tiny island with unpronounceable place names and all that.) Since Sheffield Library recently installed self-service machines, and I can now take out books about languages without being asked inane questions about “Going there on holiday?” (it makes me very sad to have to avoid libraries for the same reason I avoid hairdressers, but such is the way of the world), I decided to borrow it and bring it home with me for a fuller analysis.

I already had a vague idea of how the letters of the Latin alphabet used to write Maltese might correspond to the Arabic script, and this proved to be more or less the case, with a few difficult to guess ones (like ‘x’, pronounced sh, apparently) finally explained (though a few inconsistent variations in equivalents seem to exist). I started flicking through the sample vocabulary and phrases, finding many similarities: Maltese baħar ‘sea’ (Bahrain means ‘two seas’, from the same root), daar ‘house’ (Dar es Salaam, the capital of Tanzania means ‘House of Peace’), layl ‘night’ (origin of the name Layla; the 1,001 Arabian Nights are known in Arabic as Alf Layla wa-Layla; don’t know who Alf was or why there were two Laylas), and gżira ‘island’ (from the Arabic equivalent of which comes Al-Jazeera) all being essentially identical. I expected nouns to be similar, but even verbs – qara ‘he read’ (the name of the Qur’an just means ‘reading’ – it comes from exactly this word) – and short phrases proved similarly recognisable. Obviously, the longer the phrase, the more English and Italian loanwords crept in and the more my understanding declined accordingly (from the Italian, you swines, and the overall effect of the changed word balance – not from the English).

I daresay pronunciation varies a bit, so I’m not sure how much actual, live Maltese I’d be able to understand if attempting to communicate in person – certainly very little if attempted at anything like normal talking speed – but I still find it fascinating that Maltese still displays such similarity to a language from which it diverged much as English long ago split from the ancestors of German, Dutch, and Geordie. And look how distant and incomprehensible those languages have become to one another since.

I can’t say this exercise has achieved a great deal – other than, you know, providing me a bit more trivia in a life built around its pursuit – but I’ve tended to find the principle of ‘drinking from many wells’ is a worthwhile one, particularly when it comes to languages. Some concepts obscure or difficult to comprehend in one language – like when is it ‘I’ and when is it ‘me’ in English and why do they differ (answer: because of case) – are better illustrated and might be more easily understood in languages where they’re used more broadly – such as, in this case, Greek, Russian, or  Yankunytjatjara (yeah, yeah, yeah, I got that last one off Wikipedia) – and grasping the concept doesn’t always require learning the language in any comprehensive sense. Perhaps my afternoon spent taking the comparative approach to Semitic languages will do something to reinforce my vague understanding of Arabic.

As far as Maltese goes, though, I’m not really in a position to do much more than make the odd (fairly confident) guess at the meaning of a few basic words, and the odd (rather less confident) stab at pronunciation. To take our earlier example – Trejqet Inżul Ix-Xemx – I can now say confidently it’s probably something to do with the sunset, and rather less confidently that it’s probably pronounced something like: ترجقت انزل الشمش

Roughly speaking.

向左向右,错错错! (or Left and Right, and Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!)

August 5, 2011 2 comments

I’ve been learning Chinese for about nine months. The language is okay but I still can’t use chopsticks.

I’ve just started trying to read some very simple Chinese books. Finding material for reading practice in other languages is often very difficult. Most of what’s available is too hard and not really designed for learners, and there’s often not much help in knowing what’s available or where to find it. Learning a language is easy – there are books for that, and CDs, and websites, and classes, and all the rest of it – but what you get in those are single sentences or short paragraphs by way of simple exercises for reading and comprehension: read a short passage, answer a few questions. The gap between that kind of thing and the actual act of reading, say, a website or newspaper, let alone a book, is vast, and there’s often very little to bridge it. Even when you can find ‘simple’ books of the kind that might ostensibly be at your level it can be a frustrating experience when the authors have written with a particular course or range of topics in mind, which may be utterly different from those you yourself learned, presenting a mass of vocabulary you’ve never seen before, no matter how simple it might be.

Chinese is better than most in this regard, because the Chinese government promotes a standardised test – the HSK – with a fixed list of vocabulary and topics covered at each level. A lot of material for people learning Chinese is based on this, so if you’ve got a rough idea of your own approximate level on the HSK you should have a good idea of what you will and won’t be able to manage.

Having only recently ventured so far as to start looking for examples of Chinese to read for myself, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this does actually hold up in practice, and there’s a much bigger, better designed and more accessible range of books for Chinese learners than for students of, say (and this is from experience), Arabic or Russian. What I found specifically was the Chinese Breeze series of ‘Graded Readers’ – a range of about sixty books at eight levels, based around vocabularies of about 300 words up to vocabularies of several thousand.

That just left the matter of choosing the book itself. I hunted around on Amazon, but the search function threw up a bit of a hotchpotch of books at different levels, and of multiple editions of the same book, some of which were out of print and unavailable anyway, so it was hard to make a straight comparison. One of the first ones I came to stood out as sounding like exactly the kind of book I didn’t want to read (or so I thought; bear with me, comedy fans), the vomit-inducingly titled Can I Dance With You? Great, I thought. If I want to learn Chinese I’ll have to wade through the Chinese version of Mills & Boon, if Mills & Boon were written for retarded five year olds. There were a few similar titles amongst the bunch, so in the end I settled on Two Children Seeking the Joy Bridge. If it proved to be a kids’ book, that’d be fine by me.

As it turns out, it’s certainly a story about children. Whether or not that makes it a kids’ book, I have no idea. My level of Chinese is so basic anyway that I’m not sure there’d really be anything to choose between a kids’ book from one for adults. I was really impressed with the book, though. I could read it with just enough difficulty to make it worthwhile but without it becoming frustrating. Great. Cracking. Onto the next one…

Oh yes. The next one.

There’s a short introduction to the series at the start of each book wherein the publishers explain that the series covers quite a wide range of genres (“detective, adventure, romance, fantasy, science fiction, society, biography, horror, legend, etc”); understandably so – not everyone learning Chinese necessarily shares my fascination with, say, the living conditions of the rural poor at the outbreak of the Boxer Rebellion, or the ways in which a knowledge of Chinese might be used to foment worldwide popular revolution; some of them probably just want to read Mills & Boon.

So, turning to the back to the peruse the list of other titles, I wasn’t surprised to see our old friend Can I Dance With You joined by the rather ominously similar-sounding I Really Want to Find Her… and Whom Do You Like More?
Snore.

But what’s this? The first one in the list is called Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! Cue schoolboy giggles from me. How unfortunate, I thought. They’ve probably got no idea what connotation the word ‘wrong’ carries for anyone under the age of about 40.

Oh no, wait. Maybe they do.

错错错!
Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!

June 8. Beijing. A pretty girl lies dead on the floor her luxury home. A slip of paper found on her body reads, “I’m tired. Let me leave…” At the bottom of the slip of paper is a signature: Lin Shuang-shuang.

Shuang-shuang has a twin sister called Dui-dui. The two girls look so similar that others can hardly tell who’s who. Is the one who died really Shuang-shuang? Then where is Dui-dui? If the one who Dui-dui as someone claimed, then why is the signature on the slip Lin Shuang-shuang?

Hmm, yes, pretty wrong – a perception not helped by a cover as tasteful as this.
Not at all what I would have expected, so I move on to number two – I Really Want to Find Her… A tale of heartbreak after holiday romance? Love at first sight glimpsed through the window of a moving train? Oh no.

我一定要找到她•••
I Really Want to Find Her…

She is really beautiful. Just one look at her photo and three guys, Dai-wei, Jie-fu, Qiu-tan, are all determined to find her! The photo was given to them by their professor before he died. And nobody knows where in China this girl is. How can the guys find her? And what happens when they finally see her?

I couldn’t begin to imagine. Especially considering there’s three of them. Is this what dying professors do in China? I’m beginning to sense a mild Chinese obsession with pretty girls and dead people. (Okay, that’s a universal obsession; maybe I’m just gaining first insight into a peculiarly Chinese version of it.) Then it’s Can I Dance With You? Cheesy titles, it seems, are not always what they seem.

我可以请跳舞你吗?
Can I Dance With You?

A smart young man suddenly gets into big trouble.

Oh, here we go… Something to do with a pretty young girl by any chance?

He just fell in love with a pretty girl a few days ago, but now the police are at his home and want to arrest him.

She’s dead, isn’t she?

The bank he works for lost 10 million dollars, and the police list him as a suspect.

No! Curse these unpredictable Chinese and their narrative wiles.

Of course he is not the robber! He even knows who did it. But can he find evidence to prove it to the police? It’s all just too much. Also, will he be able to see his girlfriend again?

Not if her name’s Shuang-shuang. Or Dui-dui. Or if the professor with the weird dying wish has got anything to do with it. Maybe I’m complicating things. I’m so confused.

There’s one obvious snorer in the bunch – Whom Do You Like More – which really does sound like the kind of romantic drivel I was trying to avoid in so unwisely writing off Can I Dance With You? (And where does the dancing come into it anyway? Oh, wait, that must be when he met the girl, mustn’t it? And it was her who robbed the bank, wasn’t it? What a bastard.)

Anyway, then, suddenly, out of nowhere, the book I feel like I’ve been waiting my whole life to discover…

向左向右
Left and Right: The Conjoined Brothers

Left and Right are two brothers.

(Those are actually their names. They’re written in characters in the title so it’s not just the vagaries of translation or anything. Put them into Google translate if you don’t believe me. Obviously, if you find yourself the parents of a pair of Siamese twins what you really want to do is make their life even easier by giving them names like Left and Right.)

Left and Right are two brothers. Even their parents don’t know who is older and who is younger, as they are Siamese twins.

(I’m reminded here of the way in which English laws on royal succession would reckon the first twin born as the eldest, and hence the rightful heir, whereas the French would reckon it to be the second, as he must have been the one conceived first. Anyone want to proffer any suggestions as to the prevailing logic in the matter of ‘oldest’ and ‘youngest’ as it pertains to Siamese twins? No, please, don’t. Anyway, is this a thought that pops into your head if you have Siamese twins? “Hmm, I wonder which one is the eldest…”)

They must do everything together. They play together, eat together, and sleep together. Most of the time they enjoy their lives and are very happy. When one was sick, the other helped his brother take his medicine and he got better. However, it’s no fun anymore when they sit in class together but one brother dislikes the other’s subjects…

What? Wha…? I’m just…

Left and Right. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

(I’ve ordered the lot, obviously.)

UPDATED: With links.

Categories: Nonsense, Opinion, Reviews

Don’t hospitals have the internet?

September 26, 2010 2 comments

From The Guardian:

Some clinics provide pornography for men masturbating in clinic rooms to produce sperm for IVF with their partners.

[…]

The average spend on magazines was £21.32 a trust a year…

Categories: Nonsense

Why sex with robots is wrong

July 22, 2010 Leave a comment

[tweetmeme source=”MattKeefe” only_single=false]
They do rock music. They do schools. They do science-fucking-fiction. Literally. Behold, a Christian parable of the year 2030.

Categories: Nonsense Tags: , , ,

God will make your trousers fall down

July 21, 2010 Leave a comment

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No, really. It happened to the Lord Mayor of Leicester, apparently as a result of his decision to end the practice of opening council meetings with prayers.

Colin Hall, Lord Mayor of Leicester, stopped the practice, calling it “outdated, unnecessary and intrusive”.

Clearly the Lord was not so impressed, as he has now humbled the mighty Mayor in possibly the most embarrassing incident Mouse has ever heard of for a public official.

The Lord Mayor of Leicester, was addressing a function for children from three local schools when his trousers fell down. It sounds rather like a Carry On film scene, but Mouse has seen the mighty had of God at work in this. Surely this is proof that God intervenes in the world.

With proof like that, who needs baseless assertion? It’s a good job I do most of my blasphemy in my pants, that’s all I can say.

I Write Like…

July 15, 2010 5 comments

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Like many people, I’ve recently been finding amusement and distraction in the rather ingenious I Write Like… site. You can enter a sample of your own writing into the site’s analyser, and it’ll tell you which famous author your writing is comparable to. As amusing as it is, the results do seem rather random. Entering a chapter of fiction, I was told that I write like Tolstoy; entering a chapter of non-fiction, the result was H. P. Lovecraft. This left me wondering whether the site’s analysis was based on some (likely spurious) method of actual text comparison, or whether it was was simply arbitrary, in the manner of Jedi names or porn names.

I decided to run a little test. I cut-and-pasted the opening passages of Dan Brown’s latest tour de bollocks, The Lost Symbol (freely availabe here) into the site. The result?

I write like
Dan Brown

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

So far, so good. (Obviously Dan Brown would take this as evidence – nay, proof – of some conspiracy theory or other and use it to fashion an argument of the convergence of just about everything, but we can safely forget about him now.) Next I decided to try Tolstoy – specifically, the first chapter of War & Peace.

I write like
Leo Tolstoy

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Another success. Tolstoy’s an interesting case, of course, because the text I entered was in English, though the book was written in Russian (with approximately 2% of the text in French) and had thus undergone translation, the result arguably being as much the work of his translator as Tolstoy himself. We can speculate that the site may have based its comparisons on English language versions of books by the likes of Tolstoy, of course, so perhaps the translation is irrelevant. For comparison, I chose the opening chapter of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov as my next test subject.

I write like
Leo Tolstoy

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Maybe it just doesn’t have Dostoevsky in its database. The editions of War & Peace and The Brothers Karamazov weren’t translated by the same people, but they do date from around the same time, and Constance Garnett, who translated the version of The Brothers Karamazov used here, did also translate Tolstoy (having known him personally) so perhaps there is some similarity.

Next I decided to try something more modern, and written in English – Stephen King’s 1998 novel, Bag of Bones.

I write like
Stephen King

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

At this point, it seemed pretty fair to conclude that whatever method the analyser is using, it’s probably backed up by a database of most of the available texts for the authors concerned. I entered the first chapter of The Call of Cthulhu into it:

I write like
H. P. Lovecraft

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

…and the first chapter of Ulysses.

I write like
James Joyce

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Obviously, a database which identifies an author by his work is not really all that thrilling. I was still interested in the basis of the underlying analysis, such as it may be, and how it might be useful in other regards. Authorship of the Bible has long been disputed, so I entered the first book of Genesis:

I write like
Kurt Vonnegut

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Interesting. Not Moses, then? Again, the book has obviously been translated, and heavily re-styled in the process. Maybe Kurt Vonnegut had a hand in that, I don’t know. What about the Quran?

I write like
James Joyce

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

That’s an English version, by the way. In Arabic:

I write like
Neil Gaiman

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Doesn’t surprise me. One of the usual suspects, really.

Next I decided to test some newspapers, taking an editorial from each of the following, to see whose writing they were most akin to:

  • The Guardian – James Fenimore Cooper
  • The Daily Telegraph – Arthur C. Clark
  • The Independent – David Fenimore Wallace
  • The Sun – James Joyce
  • The Daily Mail – H. P. Lovecraft

Since his death, H. P. Lovecraft has frequently been decried as a racist and a bigot, with his writing style often characterised as histrionic and alarmist. Seems fitting. Funnily enough, while I was on the Daily Mail site, I noticed the latest column from Richard Littlejohn. Entering Littlejohn’s column into the machine, I was rewarded with perhaps the most interesting result of all:

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

A fine tool, with many fine uses, I’m sure you’ll agree.