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Archive for May 2010

New Number Nine

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What is the largest number?

45 billion? 24?

According to one bit of speculation, at some time, it was 8:

It is important to grasp that PIE [Proto-Indo-European] is not anything like “the first human language”, or even “the original ancestor of our languages”. [..] Nevertheless, PIE is sufficiently old that it may possibly have had properties that would make it seem not just “different” but somewhat “primitive”, if we could encounter it as an actual spoken language today. Nobody would expect PIE to have had words for “television” or “banana” — obviously. But, more interestingly, Mallory and Adams point out for instance that the PIE word for “nine” seems to derive from the word for “new”; they suggest that “nine” may originally have been called “the new number”, implying that having a name for such a big number ranked for PIE speakers as a whizzy technological breakthrough. (In English, the pronunciation of these two words has developed rather differently, but notice that in German “neun” and “neu” are closer, and in French “neuf” has both meanings.)

And Sanskrit has “nava” for both; in Hindi they become “nau” and “nayā”. Of course, the fact that the words for ‘new’ and ‘nine’ are similar or identical to each other in many Indo-European languages only means that the roots in Proto-Indo-European were similar or identical, without necessarily implying anything about the reason for it. (I find the theory implausible anyway; I’d think that larger numbers were already familiar even before the first counting words arose, and numbers probably weren’t treated with sufficient abstraction to consider the newness of a number itself.)

The passage quoted above is from Geoffrey Sampson’s PIE page, which contains a (very) short story in reconstructed Proto-Indo-European, to demonstrate what it (must have probably) sounded like.


Once there was a king. He was childless. The king wanted a son.

He asked his priest:
“May a son be born to me!”

The priest said to the king:
“Pray to the god Varuna”.

The king approached the god Varuna to pray now to the god.

“Hear me, father Varuna!”

The god Varuna came down from heaven.

“What do you want?” “I want a son.”

“Let this be so”, said the bright god Varuna.

The king’s lady bore a son.


To réecs éhest. So nputlos éhest. So réecs súhnum éwelt.

Só tóso cceutérm prcscet:
“Súhnus moi jnhyotaam!”

So cceutéer tom réejm éweuqet:
“Ihgeswo deiwóm Wérunom”.

So réecs deiwóm Werunom húpo-sesore nu deiwóm ihgeto.

“Cluttí moi, phter Werune!”

Deiwós Wérunos kmta diwós égweht.

“Qíd welsi?” “Wélmi súhnum.”

“Tód héstu”, wéuqet loukós deiwos Werunos.

Reejós pótnih súhnum gegonhe.

Several similarities both to Sanskrit and to Latin are obvious. The spelling above is artificially made “simpler” (English-like); the actual one (see Wikipedia page) has features even closer to Sanskrit:

To rḗḱs éh1est. So n̥putlos éh1est. So rēḱs súhnum éwel(e)t. Só tós(j)o ǵʰeutérm̥ (e)pr̥ḱsḱet: “Súhxnus moi ǵn̥h1jotām!” So ǵʰeutēr tom rḗǵm̥ éweukʷet: “Ihxgeswo deiwóm Wérunom”. So rḗḱs deiwóm Werunom h4úpo-sesore nu deiwóm (é)ihxgeto. “ḱludʰí moi, phater Werune!” Deiwós Wérunos km̥ta diwós égʷehat. “Kʷíd welsi?” “Wélmi súxnum.” “Tód h1éstu”, wéukʷet loukós deiwos Werunos. Rēǵós pótniha súhnum gegonh1e.

And by the time you get to Proto-Indo-Iranian, it’s almost entirely readable.

I have been looking at some comparative linguistics lately, and there’s no doubt that the essential features of the PIE reconstruction are more-or-less correct. The old view that “Sanskrit is the mother of all languages”, often repeated in India by non-linguists, is quite hard to believe after even a cursory look at the evidence available. (Note: I am not discounting the “Out of India theory”, that the Proto-Indo-European homeland was in India — my impression on that is that it seems just barely possible, though there’s no special linguistic reason to believe it, and a few not to — just pointing out that Sanskrit, in the form we have today or even in the Vedas, is most definitely the result of quite a few changes from the original PIE and it is impossible to consider it the original language.) Sanskrit is, however, one of the oldest available languages, and has preserved many features of PIE for centuries with unmatched accuracy. In the Indian context, it is the mother of all the Indo-Aryan languages (Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, etc.) and even the Dravidian languages (Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam) have borrowed large parts of their vocabulary from Sanskrit, and often modeled their own grammar and literary tradition after Sanskrit.

Written by S

Thu, 2010-05-27 at 14:52:50 +05:30

Posted in history, language, sanskrit

Timespeak: Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind

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TIME magazine used to have a famously distinct style, a precursor of some of today’s awkward journalese (which Dan Brown foisted upon the world at large). Dubbed “Timespeak”, it consisted of some favourite adjectives, a disdain for articles, coined nouns of a type of which “Timespeak” is itself an example, and a sentence order famously parodied by Wolcott Gibbs as “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind”.
(Those days are finally over: in 2007, the New York Times had an article titled With Redesign of Time, Sentences Run Forward.)

I just found the complete text of Wolcott Gibbs’s article, which is an unflattering, biting, full-length profile of Henry Luce, Time’s co-founder, written entirely in “Timese” and published in The New Yorker, 1936. The section where he describes the language:

Puny in spite of these preparations, prosy in spite of the contributions of Yale poets Archibald McLeish & John Farrar, was the first issue of Time on March 3, 1923. Magazine went to 9,000 subscribers; readers learned that Uncle Joe Cannon had retired at 86, that there was famine in Russia, that Thornton Wilder friend Gene Tunney had defeated Greb.

Yet to suggest itself as a rational method of communication, of infuriating readers into buying the magazine, was strange inverted Timestyle. It was months before Hadden’s impish contempt for his readers, his impatience with the English language, crystallized into gibberish. By the end of the first year, however, Timeditors were calling people able, potent, nimble;  “Tycoon”, most successful Timepithet, had been coined by Editor Laird Shields Goldsborough; so fascinated Hadden with “beady-eyed” that for months nobody was anything else. Timeworthy were deemed such designations as “Tom-tom” Heflin, “Body-lover” Macfadden.

“Great word! Great word!” would crow Hadden, coming upon “snaggle-toothed,” “pig-faced.” Appearing already were such maddening coagulations as “cinemaddict,” “radiorator.” Appearing also were first gratuitous invasions of privacy. Always mentioned as William Randolph Hearst’s “great & good friend” was Cinemactress Marion Davies, stressed was the bastardy of Ramsay MacDonald, the “cozy hospitality” of Mae West. Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind.

It ends with a flourish:

Certainly to be taken with seriousness is Luce at thirty-eight, his fellowman already informed up to his ears, the shadow of his enterprises long across the land, his future plans impossible to imagine, staggering to contemplate. Where it all will end, knows God!

Preparation is all this for this post on the A Roguish Chrestomathy blog (On the lucidity of Yoda), where followed up are various prior analyses of Yoda’s syntax, including relations to Irish and whether use the past tense Yoda does.

Written by S

Mon, 2010-05-24 at 21:50:42 +05:30

Posted in language

Tagged with , , ,

Soiled fish

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The following quote:

It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it.

is attributed to Jacob Chanowski. It appears, with attribution to Jacob Chanowski, in several books, including this one, this one, this one, this one… it even appears in translation in a couple of French papers. There’s even a Graduation speech at the University of Iowa containing the quote, with “twentieth-century educator Jacob Chanowski said…”. If books and papers and speeches have it, what of the internet? Of course there are hundreds of webpages with this quote, also attributing it to Jacob Chanowski.

The only problem is, Jacob Chanowski doesn’t exist.

The quote is actually by Jacob Bronowski. He said this in his book The Ascent of Man, p.360, as cited here, here, here, etc. Also see this thread, wondering about the same question.

But there’s a further unnecessary twist. For some perverse reason, the questioner here stands his ground, claims it has been incorrectly attributed to Bronowski, and it is actually by “Jacob Chanowski (1908–1974)”, of whom nothing can be found on the internet other than this quote (and a couple other misquotations of quotes also attributed to Bronowski). Now it turns out 1908–1974 was Bronowski’s lifetime, so the guy on that thread is probably just confused. He does point out something suspicious: there are too many quotes all attributed to p. 360 of The Ascent of Man, which hardly seems plausible — until you realize all the quotes are about Göttingen, so it’s possible they are on the same page.

I think this is conclusive enough that it’s by Bronowski, and Chanowski doesn’t exist.

The only moral of this time-wasting story is that something frequently repeated isn’t necessarily trustworthy, and that the perils of propagation are only amplified on the internet. Quotes have a way of picking up a life of their own, finding several new authors and sometimes getting stuck with the wrong one. Some people are quote magnets for these assorted debris, people like Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw or Winston Churchill. This is why Uncyclopedia has a running gag of making up quotes attributed to Oscar Wilde, and Dorothy Parker said:

If with the literate I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

Written by S

Tue, 2010-05-18 at 17:11:32 +05:30

Posted in quotes

How not to translate: an example

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In David Shulman’s beautiful article The Arrow and the Poem (reminded via), he gives an example of the “sheer awfulness” of most Sanskrit translation into English:

Sanskrit may always have attracted just the kind of fussy, pedantic minds that make for the worst possible translators. They produced versions of Sanskrit poetry that were hardly likely to entice: “Shall I set in motion moist breezes by (means of) cool lotus-leaf-fans which-removed languor? Or placing thy feet, brown as the lotus, O round-thighed (maiden), in (my) lap shall I rub them soothingly?” That, believe it or not, is another verse from the play by Kalidasa that I mentioned at the start. The translator, Sir Monier Monier- Williams, held the Boden Chair in Sanskrit at Oxford during the second half of the nineteenth century, and he famously produced one of the major dictionaries for the language, still very much in use. But clearly, like most people, he had no idea how to translate.

(The rest of the article is great too.)
Read the rest of this entry »

Written by S

Sat, 2010-05-15 at 16:22:00 +05:30

Posted in sanskrit

Tagged with ,


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What’s this?


Seeing more should help:

If that’s too easy, how about this?

Statement and proof

Both are from Rekhāgaṇita, which is a c. 1720s translation by Jagannatha of Nasir al-Din al-Tusi’s 13th-century Arabic translation of Euclid’s Elements. It seems to be a straightforward translation of the Arabic — it even uses, to label vertices etc., letters in the Arabic order अ ब ज द ह व झ…. The text retains most of the structure and proposition numbers of Euclid, but in fact the Arabic world has considerably elaborated on Euclid. For instance, for the famous first example above, it gives sixteen additional proofs/demonstrations, which are not in the Greek texts.

The first volume (Books I to VI) is available on Google Books and the second volume (Books VII to XV) through (25 MB PDF).

Notes on the second: some technical vocabulary — a प्रथमाङ्कः is a prime number, and a रूप is a unit (one). The rest of the vocabulary, like “निःशेषं करोति” meaning “divides (without remainder)”, is more or less clear, and also the fact that as in Euclid, numbers are being conceived of as lengths (so दझ and झद mean the same).

It does sound cooler to say “इदमशुद्धम्” than “But this is a contradiction”. :-)

Written by S

Wed, 2010-05-12 at 21:20:19 +05:30

Posted in mathematics, sanskrit

Tagged with ,


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