Talky Tuesday: Compound interest?

English isn’t the only language to use compound words and, in fact, ours are rather tamed compared to some really complicated ones in other tongues.

Like several other languages, English uses compound words to create new concepts by sticking two other words together. This can actually be done in one of three ways: open compounds, which are separate words (hang glider); hyphenated compounds, which are what it says on the tin (life-size); and closed compounds, which happen when the words are fused together (superstar).

The latter shouldn’t be confused with a portmanteau word, which is one word shoved into another. That is, the separate words merge to form one that doesn’t contain a complete version of either. A famous example is smog, which comes from smoke and fog.

These kinds of words are named for a portmanteau, which is a large suitcase or trunk that opens into two equal parts, as opposed to a regular suitcase, which pretty much has a shallow lid and a deep storage area. Fun fact: portmanteau is itself a portmanteau, derived from the French words porter, “to carry”, and manteau, “mantle.” They’re very common in English, but not today’s subject, although you can find lists of them online.

Another thing that compound words are generally not is agglutinative, although that depends upon what you’re agglutinating. Broadly speaking, an agglutinative language is considered a “synthetic language,” but that does not mean made up. In this case, synthetic refers to synthesis, which is the creation of a whole from various parts.

English can show agglutinative propensities in word pairs like teach and teacher. The former is a verb, the latter is a noun describing a person who does the verb. Farm, farmer; game, gamer; preach, preacher; account, accountant; debut, debutante; and so on. These are all agglutinative words in English, short and simple, but they really aren’t an essential or sole feature of how words are built in the language.

A good example of simple agglutinatives are the classical versions of the Semitic languages Hebrew and Arabic, which both work in similar ways. They start with a simple word root, and then add prefixes, suffixes, and infixes to change the meaning, basically building a root outward into various concepts. (The modern versions are apparently more analytical, less agglutinative.)

Complicated agglutinative languages will pile on the prefixes and suffixes until a speaker winds up with a ridiculously long word that expresses a concept in great detail, but which a lot of other languages would have achieved through separate words and parts of speech.

What analytical and inflected languages do is build meaning through things like articles, nouns, adjectives, verbs, prepositions, pronouns, adverbs, conjunctions, interjections, and interrogatives. A language spoken (at them) loudly and — wow! — what?

If you really want to go hog-wild with an agglutinative language, then check out Turkish. It’s a hot mess, but that probably explains why Recep Erdoğan is always so cranky.

But let’s get back to those compound words, because they are also a feature of Spanish and German, which both do them in very different ways, not only from each other, but from English.

English compound words tend to just go for it, jam the words together, and done. Examples: Airport, baseball, windfall, extraordinary, worldwide, sailboat, stockbroker, etc.

Spanish compound words are a little more practical, since they tend to pretty much describe what the thing does, which English compounds don’t always do. Also, they tend to be masculine words regardless of the second half so that, for example, the word for umbrella is masculine despite the second half of the word being feminine (and plural): el paraguas.

Other great examples in Spanish: abrelatas, can opener, literally open cans; autopista, highway/freeway, literally automobile trail; bienvenido, welcome, literally the same in Spanish; cumpleaños, birthday, literally complete years; horasextra, overtime, literally extra hours; lavaplatos, dishwasher (the machine) and also literally washes dishes; matamoscas, fly swatter, literally kills flies.

I think that gives you a good general idea, and you can find lists online as well. But when it comes to the granddaddy of ridiculous compounds that give agglutinative languages a run for their money, look no farther than German.

English may rarely stick three words together to make one compound, but that seems to be our limit. The Germans? Well, they do seem to have a knack for sticking words together to describe things they couldn’t be arsed to come up with single words for, like literally calling gloves hand shoes (die Handschuhe.) I don’t think we get quite that lazy in English.

But the Germans transcend that. Are three words a compound limit for them? Oh hell noes. They’ll go on shoving words together all day long to express a specific concept. I guess the idea of sentences is too much for them.

I kid! A big chunk of my ancestry is German — well, at least the quarter that came down from my paternal grandfather  — and it is the third language, besides Spanish and English, that I have actually studied beyond a passing interest. But, c’mon. Some of their compound words are ridiculous.

Here’s a good one, made up of no less than eight separate words: rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz. A literal word-for-word translation into English is “beef meat labeling monitoring tasks transfer law.”

The Week made a great compilation of ten of the worst offenders, but I have to share a couple of them here.

Hey, this one is only three words! Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften, legal protection insurance companies, as in companies that will indemnify your ass against lawsuits.

Again, only four little words but one huge result: Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän. It literally means Danube steamship company captain, and wouldn’t you hate to have to shoehorn that word into your resume? But let us take a moment to look at the unfortunate word in there, and you know exactly which one I mean: dampfschiffahrts. Dampf means steam, and that should be pretty obvious after two seconds of realizing that it’s similar to the English word damp. Likewise, schiff for ship should be a no-brainer.

This leaves us with fahrts and no, it does not mean what you think it does. It comes from the German word fahren, to drive, and tends to wind up in anything involving a vehicle or journey. For that other word referring to the gas driven out of your ass, you want to use der Furz. And yes, it’s a masculine noun, because of course it is.

What? We all know that women never fart. It just isn’t done.

And, finally, there’s another four word jam slam: Bezirksschornsteinfegermeister. It refers to the master of chimney sweeps in a district, but breaks down to district (bezirks) chimney (schornstein) sweep (feger) and master (meister).

Zero or hero

The concept of zero might seem completely intuitive to modern minds. You can’t get to any multiple of 10, 100, 1,000 or so on without it, for one thing. It’s also often the bottom number on various gauges or dials — think speedometer or volume setting — or at least a middle point on things like thermometers or equalizers.

And yet, when humans first started to math, the concept of zero didn’t even exist. Why? Because it wasn’t necessary. The origin of human math had nothing to do with science or geometry or any of that. It was all about commerce.

Math began with counting, which began in the marketplace. What happened here was simple. Somebody with something to sell would set up a stand. Somebody looking to buy would approach. The latter would use whatever was legal tender in trade in exchange for what the former had to offer.

That legal tender could be precious metal stamped in some sort of official fashion or, earlier than that, it could tools, jewelry, stones, or other commodities. For example, one person might be offering a lamb for six chickens.

In order to make the exchange, two things were necessary after the price was set. The seller had to be able to count out the number of things on offer and the two of them had to calculate the price, based on cost per unit times the number of units.

Hello, integers, which are those whole numbers with no decimal places. And hello the idea of multiplication, except that it wasn’t necessary per se. Multiplication is just repeated addition. Remember this, because it, along with the idea that division is just repeated subtraction, will be important later.

So the seller agrees that one lamb costs six chicken and the buyer wants four lambs. The seller counts out the four lambs and sets them aside in a pen. The buyer counts out six chickens for each lamb, but there’s never any multiplication. They might even do each transaction one at a time.

The end result, though, is that the seller winds up with four fewer lambs and twenty-four more chickens.

What he doesn’t know is that the buyer is going to use three of those lambs to buy a cow, and then set up a very profitable business selling milk, dairy products and, thanks to his neighbor, calves for veal.

Now what’s the one thing that never enters into these transactions at all?

Zero.

The seller cannot offer to give you zero lambs. The buyer cannot offer to pay with zero chickens. In the context of commerce, zero is meaningless because it’s not countable. You cannot have zero number of things.

And so math cruised on for millennia without any idea of zero.

The Sumerians did have sort of a placeholder for zero by around 3000 BCE, but it was a character used between digits in cuneiform writing to represent an empty place in the counting. Babylonians accounted for this zero but did not have a character for it. They would leave a gap, so that 402 would be written as 4 2. However, there would be no distinction between 42 and 420, which would both be written as 42.

This would probably make stoners who love Douglas Adams’ writings very happy.

The Mayans invented zero independently around 4 CE, but it wasn’t until the mid-5th century that Hindu mathematicians developed the idea. This was picked up by Arab mathematicians and it would have spread to the West except for the unfortunate thing called the Crusades.

Western mathematicians were all ready to embrace it, but since what were actually Hindu numerals were known as Arabic numerals by this point, the Catholic Church said, “Are you kidding? No good ideas can come from our enemies,” so the concept of zero was considered the devil’s work for a while.

In case you think that people can’t be that stupid about numbers for purely ideological reasons, a recent survey showed a surprising number of people opposed to teaching Arabic numerals in schools — even though they are the familiar digits we’ve all used for centuries.

Since the Hindus started using it in serious math, though, zero has proven itself to be invaluable. It provides a point at which numbering scales can change — you can’t go from positive to negative without passing through it, after all — and it serves as a universal error warning whenever a formula winds up trying to make it the divisor in an equation.

There are also some fun questions you can ask about zero. Don’t worry. There’s very little actual math involved in learning the answers. Except for the last one.

Is zero an even number?

At first glance, this seems like it’s unanswerable because zero has no numerical value. Like 1 being sort of a prime but not, it feels like zero would be neither odd nor even. But as soon as we look at the definition of an even number… well, let’s look at that.

The first definition of an even number: It’s evenly divisible by 2. You can check that out with any random even number. For example, 14/2 = 7, or 8/2 = 4. The result can be either odd or even, and prime or not, as those two examples show. And some numbers can be divided by 2 more than once — 4/2 = 2.

So is zero divisible by 2? Oh yes, and an infinite number of times: 0/2 = 0. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Another property of an even number: It’s a multiple of 2. Again, it doesn’t matter whether you start with an odd or even number. The result will always be even: 16 x 2 = 32; 47 x 2 = 94, and so on.

And what happens with zero? We get 0 x 2 = 0, and so on. And since the first step indicated that zero is probably even, it’s still even.

One other determinate of an even number: It never changes the odd/even status of whatever number you add it to. The sum of two even numbers is an even number; the sum of an even and odd is odd. (I’ll leave it to you to figure out the rule of the sum of two odd numbers, which should be obvious by now.)

Now, what number never changes the status of whatever it’s added to? That’s right — our old friend zero. So, yet again, it acts like an even number.

The final test of an even number: On the whole number line, it appears between two odd integers — for example, 16 comes between 15 and 17. As for zero? Its neighbors are 1 and -1, which are both odd.

QED.

You can’t do that on television (or anywhere else)

Now, there are two things you cannot do with zero, one famously and one lesser-known. The first is that you cannot divide by zero. And no, this does not give you infinity. It give you… well, it just breaks math, period.

Division by zero, by the way, happens to be one of the proofs that travel at the speed of light is impossible. (It does not say you can’t go faster, though, as long as you skip that one troublesome point between positive and negative.)

Remember when I mentioned that multiplication is just repeated addition and division is repeated subtraction? Well, this leave multiplying by zero perfectly fine, because if you add any integer zero times, you get 0. Meanwhile, if you start with zero, no matter how many times you add it, you still get 0.

But let’s look at what happens when you try to subtract zero and figure out how many times you can. Well, guess what? No matter how many times you subtract zero, you still have the original number, so you can subtract 0 from 1 every femtosecond of every day since the Big Bang and you still will not have an answer by the time the whole thing fizzles out in cosmic entropy in a few trillion years.

But… that number is not equal to infinity. Why? Because, again, it breaks math. If dividing by zero equals infinity, then 1/0 equals infinity, and so does 2/0. If both numbers over the same divisor equal the same result, then you’ve just “proven” that 1=2. In fact, you’ve just proven that any number, whole, fractional, rational, transcendent, or not, equals every other number.

So… math breaks. The preferred result of division over zero is “Undefinied.”

Zero power!

Finally, there’s the idea that you cannot raise 0 to the power of 0. Basically, anything to the power of zero equals 1, and anything to the power of 1 equals itself. The rest follows the familiar squares and cubes and so on.

So, in theory 0 to the power of 0 equals one, but here’s the quick debunk of that. Another way to get to something to the power of 0 starts with the power of 1 — any number to the power of 1 is that number. So 2^1 = 2, 5^1 = 5, and so on.

And if you divide any number to the power of one by itself, you do get that number to the power of zero, so you get 1. Why? Because when you divide one number with an exponent over another, you subtract the exponents on the bottom from the ones on top.

So 2^1/2^1 gives us the same thing as 2/2, which is 1.

You probably see the problem coming here. While 0^1 may or may not be equal to 1, as soon as you write 0^1/0^1 it becomes irreducible because of our old bugaboo division by zero yet again.

So zero to the power of zero remains undefined as well.

How to get from zero to one

Before I get to the 0 to the power of 0 problem, here’s a very interesting one. There’s a mathematical function called a factorial, which is represented by an exclamation mark. What it means is that you take the number before that mark and multiply it by every integer less than it down to one.

It’s very useful in things like statistics and calculating odds. Here’s an example. The expression 5! means to multiply 5 by the integers below it, so you get 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1. This works out to 20 x 6 x 1, or 120.

Now it should be obvious, but one way to go from X! to the number below it is to calculate X!/X. Why? Because you’re removing the top term. 5!/5 removes the 5 and, in effect, gives you the digits for 4!: 4 x 3 x 2 x 1. That works out to 24, which happens to be 120/5.

This is all great, and then you get to 1!. And if you want to calculate 0!, you need 1!/1. And what does that work out to?

Well, it happens to be 1/1, or 1, meaning that 0! equals 1. Of course, you can’t go from 0! to -1! because you wind up dividing by 0,

Of course, there are other, much more complicated reasons that 0! = 1, but I’ll leave that explanation to the fabulous Professor James Grime of Numberphile to explain. Also, kudos to Numberphile for all the ideas reiterated here today. They are a great resource.

Image: Ajfweb at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Talky Tuesday: El-Al

No, the title of this post does not refer to the Israeli Airline, although it does allude to that part of the world. It’s just that the suffix –el and the prefix al– are often, but not always, clues that words in English and Spanish came from either Hebrew or Arabic respectively.

Hebrew and Arabic both use roots with prefixes and suffixes to indicate things like gender, number, case, part of speech, and so on. In the case of Arabic, “al” is a prefix that means “the.” Interestingly enough, in Spanish, “al” is the combination form of the preposition “a”, which means “at” or “to”, and the masculine singular definite article “el”, which means “the.”

So the phrase “el hombre” in Spanish means “the man,” while “al hombre” indicates giving or moving something to or at the man. The article “el” in Spanish bears absolutely no connection to the Hebrew suffix “-el”, though.

Let’s look at Arabic first. From 711 CE to 1492 CE, much of Northern Africa and most of Spain was under Muslim rule. As a result, the Arabic language and culture left a huge influence on the country, even after the Reconquista.

There are a lot of Spanish words that came from Arabic because of this, of course, but here I’m only going to look at a few of the “al” words. I find these a bit amusing if only because if you use them in Spanish with the definite article, you’re redundant. “El Alhambra,” for example, would be the the Red Fortress.

  1. Alcalde: al-qadi, the judge; Spanish for mayor. The feminine form is la alcaldesa. Originally, they were sort of assistant judges, but eventually became more municipal officers until the word took on the modern sense it has now.
  2. Alfombra: al-ḥánbal, a ceremonial tapestry. In Spanish, it means carpet, and if you watch awards shows in Spanish language media, you’ll hear the phrase “la alfombra roja” all the time: the red carpet. Now, since a tapestry is normally something hung on a wall, I have to wonder whether turning them into carpets wasn’t a little FU response by the Spanish once they threw off Muslim rule — “We’re going to turn your pretty wall hangings into something we walk on.” Hey, it’s not impossible.
  3. Algodón: al-qúţun, probably flax. The word is Spanish for cotton but, despite the similarity in sounds, there is no known connection between the Arabic and English words.
  4. Alhambra: al-Ḥamrāʼ, the red fortress, which describes the building in Granada, Spain It really is an architectural wonder, and must have been an amazing place to be during its heyday.
  5. Almoháda: al-mujadda, a word which means the same in Arabic and Spanish, and something I’m sure that all of us appreciate a lot more right now, if only it means we can stay in shelter and follow or increasingly vivid dreams. Una almoháda is a pillow.

As for English words that came from Arabic, here are a select few:

  1. Alcohol: al-kuḥl, which originally referred to kohl powder, which was used as an eyeliner. It was via the distillation process that the Egyptians used to create kohl that the word alcohol eventually came about. but eventually to any distilled or rectified spirit.
  2. Algebra: al-jabr, the reunion of broken parts, which is kind of what algebra does with its equations. Specifically, this referred to reducing fractions to integers in calculations. –
  3. Alkaline: al qaliy, referring to calcined ashes, which were the original source of alkaline substances, which is the current source of an ineffective fad Or, at least, misidentified. While the diet can have positive benefits, it has nothing to do with altering alkalinity in the body. Rather, the diet focuses on fruits, nuts, legumes, and vegetables, which is healthy regardless.

But I do digress. Onward!

The Hebrew suffix –el, which means god, is appended to names to create an attributive phrase. A lot of these names were applied to archangels in Hebrew tradition, and I’m sure you’ll recognize some of the more famous ones, many of which are very common first names in the Western World.

Just remember that in the original, the emphasis would be on last syllable so that, for example, the name Michael would be pronounced Mika-EL. Also, the name of the country Israel itself is an example of one of these words, from yisra-el, meaning “god contends.”

Yisra is derived from the word “sarah,” meaning to contend, and Israel was the name given to Jacob after he wrestled — or contended — with an angel of god.

To derive the female versions of these names, general just add an “a” — Daniel, Daniela, etc.

  1. Ariel: ari-el, lion of god. The Angel of Nature, Ariel is depicted as either male or female, depending upon tradition. They protected and healed animals and plants, and punished those who injured nature. Ariel was also the chief of the choir of angels known as the Virtures.
  2. Azrael: azar-el, he who helps god. Although not explicitly stated as such in Jewish tradition, Azrael is one of the Islamic angels of death. He’s not necessarily a malevolent angel, more of a civil servant, although not to be confused with the completely fictional Aziraphale from the book and minseries Good Omens. Okay, not that the other angels aren’t completely fictional as well, but… oh, you know what I mean.
  3. Daniel: din-i-el, god is my judge. Daniel is an angel in the apocryphal Book of Enoch, but not elsewhere in the Bible. He is, however, the quite human star of the Book of Daniel, where he is most famous for surviving being thrown into the lion’s den — an incident that happened because he happened to be good at his job and incorruptible, and it made the other satraps jealous and angry, so they set him up.
  4. Gabriel: gever-el, god is my strong man. One of only two archangels named in the Bible, he appears three times: The first is in several mentions in the Book of Daniel as Gabriel arrives to explain one of Daniel’s visions to him and to announce the coming of the Messiah. In the New Testament, Gabriel shows up to both Zechariah, husband of Elizabeth, and Mary, wife of Joseph, to let the former know that his wife was going to give birth to John the Baptist, and the latter know that she was going to give birth to Jesus, good luck explaining that one to Joe, apparently.
  5. Michael: micha-el, who is like god? The other archangel mentioned in the Bible, and one that I have an affinity with even though I consider myself to be a Catholic atheist. That might sound weird, but the idea is that I appreciate the trappings and customs of the religion of my mother (except for the kiddie-diddling) while believing in none of it. For me, though, St. Michael, the archangel depicted slaying Satan, is above all a symbol for each of us defeating our own dark sides. Since the two are always depicted together, they are sort of a Catholic yin-yang.
  6. Nathaniel: netan-el, gift from god. There’s no Jewish tradition of any angels named Nathaniel, but that hasn’t stopped modern woo culture from plowing on ahead and creating their own. He does show up in the Bible, though, as Nathanael, one of the Apostles, but is only mentioned in the gospel of John and nowhere else.
  7. Uriel: uri-el, light of god. Not an official archangel, although he possibly hung out with cherubim guarding the east side of Eden wielding a flaming sword after Adam and Eve were kicked out.

And there’s just a short survey of words and names that came from Arabic and Hebrew into Spanish and English. There’s a long list of English words that came from Arabic but don’t start with “al,” as well as a bunch of English words that came from Hebrew but don’t end in “el.”

The point is that English really is a melting pot of a language that loves to absorb words from other languages and cultures, and don’t let any schmuck ever tell you otherwise — especially not as you read that previous sentence with words born from Latin, French, German, Saxon, Greek, and Yiddish in it. Capisce?

Talky Tuesday: Compound interest?

Like several other languages, English uses compound words to create new concepts by sticking two other words together. This can actually be done in one of three ways: open compounds, which are separate words (hang glider); hyphenated compounds, which are what it says on the tin (life-size); and closed compounds, which happen when the words are fused together (superstar).

The latter shouldn’t be confused with a portmanteau word, which is one word shoved into another. That is, the separate words merge to form one that doesn’t contain a complete version of either. A famous example is smog, which comes from smoke and fog.

These kinds of words are named for a portmanteau, which is a large suitcase or trunk that opens into two equal parts, as opposed to a regular suitcase, which pretty much has a shallow lid and a deep storage area. Fun fact: portmanteau is itself a portmanteau, derived from the French words porter, “to carry”, and manteau, “mantle.” They’re very common in English, but not today’s subject, although you can find lists of them online.

Another thing that compound words are generally not is agglutinative, although that depends upon what you’re agglutinating. Broadly speaking, an agglutinative language is considered a “synthetic language,” but that does not mean made up. In this case, synthetic refers to synthesis, which is the creation of a whole from various parts.

English can show agglutinative propensities in word pairs like teach and teacher. The former is a verb, the latter is a noun describing a person who does the verb. Farm, farmer; game, gamer; preach, preacher; account, accountant; debut, debutante; and so on. These are all agglutinative words in English, short and simple, but they really aren’t an essential or sole feature of how words are built in the language.

A good example of simple agglutinatives are the classical versions of the Semitic languages Hebrew and Arabic, which both work in similar ways. They start with a simple word root, and then add prefixes, suffixes, and infixes to change the meaning, basically building a root outward into various concepts. (The modern versions are apparently more analytical, less agglutinative.)

Complicated agglutinative languages will pile on the prefixes and suffixes until a speaker winds up with a ridiculously long word that expresses a concept in great detail, but which a lot of other languages would have achieved through separate words and parts of speech.

What analytical and inflected languages do is build meaning through things like articles, nouns, adjectives, verbs, prepositions, pronouns, adverbs, conjunctions, interjections, and interrogatives. A language spoken (at them) loudly and — wow! — what?

If you really want to go hog-wild with an agglutinative language, then check out Turkish. It’s a hot mess, but that probably explains why Recep Erdoğan is always so cranky.

But let’s get back to those compound words, because they are also a feature of Spanish and German, which both do them in very different ways, not only from each other, but from English.

English compound words tend to just go for it, jam the words together, and done. Examples: Airport, baseball, windfall, extraordinary, worldwide, sailboat, stockbroker, etc.

Spanish compound words are a little more practical, since they tend to pretty much describe what the thing does, which English compounds don’t always do. Also, they tend to be masculine words regardless of the second half so that, for example, the word for umbrella is masculine despite the second half of the word being feminine (and plural): el paraguas.

Other great examples in Spanish: abrelatas, can opener, literally open cans; autopista, highway/freeway, literally automobile trail; bienvenido, welcome, literally the same in Spanish; cumpleaños, birthday, literally complete years; horasextra, overtime, literally extra hours; lavaplatos, dishwasher (the machine) and also literally washes dishes; matamoscas, fly swatter, literally kills flies.

I think that gives you a good general idea, and you can find lists online as well. But when it comes to the granddaddy of ridiculous compounds that give agglutinative languages a run for their money, look no farther than German.

English may rarely stick three words together to make one compound, but that seems to be our limit. The Germans? Well, they do seem to have a knack for sticking words together to describe things they couldn’t be arsed to come up with single words for, like literally calling gloves hand shoes (die Handschuhe.) I don’t think we get quite that lazy in English.

But the Germans transcend that. Are three words a compound limit for them? Oh hell noes. They’ll go on shoving words together all day long to express a specific concept. I guess the idea of sentences is too much for them.

I kid! A big chunk of my ancestry is German — well, at least the quarter that came down from my paternal grandfather  — and it is the third language, besides Spanish and English, that I have actually studied beyond a passing interest. But, c’mon. Some of their compound words are ridiculous.

Here’s a good one, made up of no less than eight separate words: rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz. A literal word-for-word translation into English is “beef meat labeling monitoring tasks transfer law.”

The Week made a great compilation of ten of the worst offenders, but I have to share a couple of them here.

Hey, this one is only three words! Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften, legal protection insurance companies, as in companies that will indemnify your ass against lawsuits.

Again, only four little words but one huge result: Donaudampfschiffahrtsgesellschaftskapitän. It literally means Danube steamship company captain, and wouldn’t you hate to have to shoehorn that word into your resume? But let us take a moment to look at the unfortunate word in there, and you know exactly which one I mean: dampfschiffahrts. Dampf means steam, and that should be pretty obvious after two seconds of realizing that it’s similar to the English word damp. Likewise, schiff for ship should be a no-brainer.

This leaves us with fahrts and no, it does not mean what you think it does. It comes from the German word fahren, to drive, and tends to wind up in anything involving a vehicle or journey. For that other word referring to the gas driven out of your ass, you want to use der Furz. And yes, it’s a masculine noun, because of course it is.

What? We all know that women never fart. It just isn’t done.

And, finally, there’s another four word jam slam: Bezirksschornsteinfegermeister. It refers to the master of chimney sweeps in a district, but breaks down to district (bezirks) chimney (schornstein) sweep (feger) and master (meister).

Talky Tuesday: After ten

Yes, it’s cinco de mayo, but one of the few places where they make a big deal out of it… the United States, particularly Los Angeles, CA — although, of course, not this year. A lot of Americans have the idea that it’s Mexican Independence Day, but it’s not. That’s el 16 de septiembre.

Cinco de mayo celebrates one battle, in the Mexican village of Puebla, and that’s the primary place in that country where they observe the holiday now. Yes, it did lead to Mexico’s final defeat of the French, but not their ultimate independence as a nation.

For comparison, this would be like people in Canada having a big party on January 8 to commemorate the Battle of New Orleans, assuming that it’s a big deal in America when, in reality, it was only a small footnote to the War of 1812, and really only celebrated in the area. At the same time, they would have no awareness of the 4th of July.

There’s also an internet joke going around bemoaning the fact that Cinco de Mayo finally falls on Taco Tuesday, but it’s being cancelled because of a virus with the name of a Mexican beer. Either way, there won’t be much of a celebration anywhere this year so, instead of the holiday, let’s look at numbers and the words for them.

Why are the number words in romance languages so similar to each other and yet so different from those in Anglo-Germanic languages. For example, here’s the number five in Romance languages: cinco (Spanish, Portuguese, and Galician), cinq (French), cinc (Catalan), cinque (Italian and Corsican), quinque (Latin), and cinci (Romanian). Meanwhile, in Anglo-Germanic languages, we have: five (English), Afrikaans, vyf (Afrikaans), fem (Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish), vijf (Dutch), fiif (Frisian), fünf (German), and fënnef (Luxembourgish).

By the way, the word in Dutch is pronounced exactly the same as the word in English, despite the huge difference in spelling.

If you run all the way up the numbering systems for both language groups, you will find the same pattern of similarities within each, as well as big difference between the two groups. Let’s just grab Spanish and German and take a look at the numbers up to twenty:

                        Spanish                                    German

1          uno                                          ein

2          dos                                          zwei

3          tres                                          drei

4          cuatro                                      vier

5          cinco                                        fünf

6          seis                                          sechs

7          siete                                         sieben

8          ocho                                        acht

9          nueve                                       nein

10        diez                                         zehn

11        once                                         elf

12        doce                                        zwölf

13        trece                                        dreizehn

14        catorce                                     vierzehn

15        quince                                      fünfzehn

16        dieciséis                                   sechszehn

17        diecisiete                                 siebzehn

18        dieciocho                                 achtzehn

19        diecinueve                               neunzehn

20        veinte                                      zwanzig

Any resemblance between numbers below ten is just a coincidence, but look at what happens after ten. In both German and English, we have those two weird numbers — eleven and twelve — that are unique, and bring us up to a dozen. Note, though, that in both languages they bear a bit of resemblance to the numbers one and two, as well.

After that, in the Anglo-Germanic languages, the rest until twenty are basically of the form “x and ten.” Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, etc. Or, dreizehn, vierzen, fünfzen, usw.

Both twenty and zwanzig again bear a little resemblance to the number two/zwei in their respective languages, and it’s the same all the way up from there.

Meanwhile, Spanish does something very similar, except that its run of special numbers goes all the way to fifteen. And, again, each of them resembles the single digit it relates to: 1 and 11, uno, once; 2 and 12, dos, doce; etc.

Why do Anglo-Germanic languages only have two special words in the teens, while Romance languages have five? Well, the former comes down to commerce and the ease of working with things in units of twelve. It’s divisible by 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6, and works well with 8 and 9 by giving easy fractions — 12/8ths is one-and-a-half, and 12/9th is one-and-a-third.

Also, not being a Roman language, Anglo-Germans were not as influenced by their numbering systems, instead using Arabic numerals — made up of the digits from 0 to 9. The Romance languages used Roman numerals until the middle ages, and these are made up from seven letters: I, V, X, L, C, D, and M.

The pattern in the numbers is that they alternately represent units of 1 and 5. In the order above, the letters represent 1 and 5, 10 and 50, 100 and 500, and 1000. This made for a natural break in naming things. Up to 15, the form of the number is along the lines of “one-ten, two-ten,” etc., before flipping around to “six-ten, seven-ten.”

But Latin does something else here that Spanish skipped, although French kept it. Instead of using the equivalent of “eight-ten, nine-ten,” the numbers 18 and 19 are of the form “two from twenty” and “one from twenty.”

If the systems were logical, then once a language hit the number after ten, then the words would be of the form “ten and number” or “number-ten.” We would count nine, ten, oneteen, twoteen, etc. But, of course, that just sounds ridiculous to our ears.

And those are just the cardinal numbers. Ordinals — the forms you use to indicate that something is a certain number in a series — are a whole different matter, and one for another day. Yes, there really isn’t a lot of apparent logic to why 1st, 2nd, and 3rd would differ from everything else, which is just a “-th.”

But even that isn’t completely consistent. Otherwise, we’d be (not) celebrating May Fiveth today.

Image: “Lots of Numbers” by Black ice via pexels.com

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