Category Archives: Language

An artesian reform of the French numbering system


Descartes artésien

Twice in my life, I have been at a meeting where a French person has stood up and said very seriously that it is obvious that French should be the global form of communication since French is the most logical of all languages.
To this, I have a number of replies, but one will suffice:



Anyone with even an elementary knowledge of French (as spoken in France) will be aware of the fact that in order to say ninety-seven one has to crawl through mathematical hoops and phrase it as “four-twenty-seventeen” (quatre-vingt-dix-sept). I could in fact have picked any number from eighty to ninety-nine to make the same point. The sequence goes from four-twenties (80) through four-twenty-six (86) and four-twenty-eleven (91) all the way to four-twenty nineteen (99). Actually, this whole business starts even earlier, in the seventies, which start with sixty-ten (70) and end with sixty-nineteen (79).
Now, this doesn’t sound like the kind of thing you would want in a country which glories in being “Cartesian”, even though Descartes himself entangled himself in many intractable problems; “Descartes et des échecs” (cards and chess or Descartes and failures) as the once-famous but now almost forgotten 18th Century philosophe Jean-Jacques Klaxx once quipped. This bizarre numbering system would fit in much better with the many oddities the English are proudly afflicted with (except that if this had happened in English they would also have made sure that the spelling and/or the pronunciation would be inconsistent too. For example, Four-twenty (80), Fourenty-one (81), Frenty-twoo (82) and so on.  Read more…

Stop beating around the mulberry bush and do the needful- Indian complaints

Dear Sir, It is with great agony that I wish to bring to your kind notice the callousness shown by some employee of your deptt.

What a way to begin a complaint! It certainly grabs my attention. This is a letter on the Indian Consumers Complaint Forum addressed to the passport office in Jaipur. And what is this callousness which caused the writer so much agony?

 In my passport they have changed my surname spelling.but i filled surname spelling correct in my forum.currently In the passport surname is ..AR… but it should be …RA… my passport no is … and file no is …

It is difficult to belive that such thing should have happened under your efficient control.please get the needful done at the earlist.

The ending is as accomplished as the beginning: “It is difficult to believe that such a thing could have happened under your efficient control.”

I am a great admirer of Indian English. I believe they will be the last country to continue to speak what I consider to be real English, which separates nouns, adverbs, adjectives and verbs into orderly clauses, something which is increasingly slipping away in Britain and America. In a hundred years’ time when everyone else will be conjugating the verb to be, as follows:

I mlike You rlike He/She/It zlike We rlike You rlike They rlike

Indians will still be using am, are and is.

It is true that they use phrases which are slightly different from what I am used to. I once used to translate at a committee which was chaired by an Indian gentleman who  used to say things like:

We are beating around the mulberry bush

We are sweeping everything under the carpet and the carpet itself is getting bloated.

I see Norway with his flag up, impedimenting progress as usual.

Read more…

Haikus for explaneedfuls


Some people (I call them explaneedfuls) need an explanation for everything and often an explanation of the explanation as well. A long time ago I met one of them. I was asked to go to a TV studio in Italy to assist the host of a programme covering the Oscar awards ceremony. I thought I was going to be there to interpret, which is what I usually do, but it turned out that the core of my job was to make sure the Italian host understood the jokes people made during the ceremony.

Jokes are definitely one of the hardest things to translate but in this case the real problem was that the person was devoid  of any sense of humour and the more one took the pieces of the witticisms apart and described how they were supposed to interact the more bewilderment descended on his features. I began to wonder whether he was actually an alien from a race with no jokes who had infiltrated our society to spy on us. They had managed to copy all our bodily components perfectly but they had no idea on how to instil humour into a fake human.

I’m sure you’ve met at least one explaneedful person. I sometimes think about them when I read haikus.

For example,

Don’t worry, spiders,
I keep house


Read more…

The Poetry of Google Translate

And the long road ahead, I go to bed
And the long road ahead, I go to bed

Google Translate is amazing when it works. Unfortunately, it only works about half of the time. Even more unfortunately, unless you already know the languages you are trying to translate, there is no way of knowing when it is accurate and when it is serving you up something non-sensical, inaccurate or downright offensive.

On the other hand, it is a wonderful machine for playing Chinese Whispers. I have already translated a Turkish menu into English, with what I think are fascinating results. Now, the time has come to see how well Google Translate can generate its own poetry.

Read more…

Zen and the Art of Taxation

Various shapes of “tax” to meditate on

Zen Buddhism has a number of koans, the most famous of which is “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

Reflect long enough upon riddles like these and you may reach enlightenment, it is suggested.

I would think that the same effect could be attained by meditating on section 509 (a) of the US Tax Code, which reads:

For purposes of paragraph (3), an organization described in paragraph (2) shall be deemed to include an organization described in section 501(c)(4), (5), or (6) which would be described in paragraph (2) if it were an organization described in section 501(c)(3).

If this is the kind of thing they have to think about it is surprising that more tax consultants aren’t Zen monks. Read more…

My Accidental Greek Wedding

manuel conv 2I have an irrational passion for phrase- books. Whenever  I go to a country where I don’t know the  language I take along a phrasebook. I often take one with me even when I go to a country where I do speak the language. Sometimes in a foreign country I suddenly stop in the middle of the road. People walk into me, but I don’t notice because my mind is wholly taken up by the question: why? What are phrasebooks for?

The first surprising fact about phrasebooks is that you hardly ever find what you want to say in them. Of course if you read them from cover to cover you will be able to note down some expressions which will be very useful in many situations. Two I have just noticed in the last few seconds while writing this are I am not used to this and Is this a local or a national custom? These are both the kind of thing you can want to say about a dozen times a day when travelling. But phrasebooks suggest the idea that when you find yourself in a situation you will be able to turn to them and find a way to deal with it. This, I think I can say safely, never happens. Read more…

Reciprocating Soup – The Tantalising Cuisine of Google Translate


They seem harmless but look out for avalanches

The last time I went to Istanbul I had supper at Çiya Sofrasi, a restaurant which is by now famous (a long article about it appeared in the New Yorker and it has also been mentioned by the New York Times). It serves traditional food from distant Turkish provinces which  is so different from the standard fare of Istanbul that the locals I was with couldn’t figure out what we were eating.

The day before I went I consulted the restaurant’s website, which had a huge list of dishes but, unfortunately, only in Turkish. So I thought it would be a good opportunity to use Google Translate to find out what was being served. What I found instead was that I was transported across a mental ocean into a new world of uncharted cuisine.  Read more…

Pop-tarts and Gutisk

One of the most attractive things about Wikipedia is its magmatic nature. Here is Nicholson Baker discussing the vicissitudes of just one of its pages:

The Pop-Tarts page is often aflutter. Pop-Tarts, it says as of today (February 8, 2008), were discontinued in Australia in 2005. Maybe that’s true. Before that it said that Pop-Tarts were discontinued in Korea. Before that Australia. Several days ago it said: “Pop-Tarts is german for Little Iced Pastry O’ Germany.” Other things I learned from earlier versions: More than two trillion Pop-Tarts are sold each year. George Washington invented them. They were developed in the early 1960s in China. Popular flavors are “frosted strawberry, frosted brown sugar cinnamon, and semen.” Pop-Tarts are a “flat Cookie.” No: “Pop-Tarts are a flat Pastry, KEVIN MCCORMICK is a FRIGGIN LOSER notto mention a queer inch.” No: “A Pop-Tart is a flat condom.” Once last fall the whole page was replaced with “NIPPLES AND BROCCOLI!!!!!”

Another reason, among the hundreds there are, why I love Wikipedia is the amazing number of languages it has embraced, including some like Bishnupriya Manipuri   বিষ্ণুপ্রিযা় মণিপুরী  or Gutisk, which I see as a row of empty boxes. Read more…

Ounce Dice Trice

For some time now New York Review Books has been re-publishing books which have been out of print for a while. This seems to me to be an excellent idea. In fact, it might be good to have a one week moratorium on new books once a year, call it Reprint Week, and dedicate it solely to old books which have been needlessly forgotten.

A while ago they brought out a book I had been waiting for. It is OUNCE DICE TRICE by Alastair Reid and Ben Shahn (first edition 1958). It is a book for children and word-lovers. It is only fifty-seven pages long but the words are meant to be read aloud, one at a time, and they are so unpredictable and interact so well with the drawings that if you belong to one of the two categories above, you will find you go back to it again and again.  On the back cover Marianne Moore is quoted as having written when the book first appeared: “Reading Ounce Dice Trice aloud is the best way of separating the bores from
their airs and the squares from their snores
.”) Read more…

Thirty-seven ways of looking at a dervish

 A secret turning in us450px-Mevlevi-Derwisch
makes the universe turn.
Head unaware of feet,
and feet head. Neither cares.
They keep turning.

– Rumi

As everybody knows, the Mevlevi are an  order of dervishes founded  in Konya in the 12th Century  by the followers of the great mystical poet Rumi and who are best known for their practice of whirling as a form of “dhikr” (remembrance of God).

If you go to Turkey, people at home, before you  leave, might say that you ought to see dervishes and that if  you were to see dervishes you ought to take a picture. Perhaps you don’t give this much thought in the beginning, you don’t really keep an eye out for dervishes. But then one day you realise that time is running out and that you must see dervishes and you ask someone where you can see them. Read more…