More on KJV

May 6, 2015

I wrote in a recent post that I have more critical things to say about the King James Version.

What most bothers me about it – and I am talking mainly about the Old Testament – is the clumsy stiffness and uniformity of its style, altogether foreign to the great variety of styles, ranging from the sublimely poetic to the colloquially prosaic, found in the original. This feature – acknowledged even by a KJV fan like Harold Bloom – is quite understandable from the translators’ point of view: they were churchmen, and what they saw themselves as translating was not literature but the Word of God.

My pet peeve has to do with the translators’ treatment of the present participle, and even more particularly a specific case of it. To explain what I mean I have to go through a little – or perhaps not so little – discussion of grammar.

Hebrew (like Arabic, as discussed here) has, technically, no present tense; it is what is known as a zero-copula language, so that the equivalent of “me Tarzan, you Jane” (or, more literally, “I Tarzan, you Jane”) would be grammatical in it. Instead of the present tense, then, it uses the present participle, so that “I go” is אני הולך  (ăni hōlēkh – I’m using a sort of scholarly transliteration, not that of modern Hebrew), literally “I am going”. Now the present participle, in virtually all languages that have it, functions as an adjective, but in those languages in which adjectives are inflected for number (and possibly for gender) – which include Hebrew and many European languages, but not English – an adjective can be used as a noun meaning a person or thing having the attribute indicated by the adjective. For example, English nouns such as belle and blonde are borrowings from French, in which they are originally the feminine singular adjectives meaning ‘beautiful’ and ‘fair-haired’, respectively, but can be automatically turned into nouns.

In English adjectives, because are uninflected, they can be nominalized only to a limited degree. Some adjectives describing people, when preceded by the, can be used in the plural only to the note the mass of people having the given attribute: the rich, the dead, the homeless… Occasionally, in specialized jargon, an adjective may become a noun if the noun following it is omitted, such temporary (filling, in dentistry) or attending (physician, in a hospital), but that’s about all.

It so happens that attending is a present participle, but generally turning a present participle into a noun, even in the limited way discussed above, is even more problematic, because the same –ing ending that forms the present participle also forms the gerund and the verbal noun. Consider the difference in meaning between the questions “What does an undertaker do for a living?” and “What does an undertaker do for the living?”

In those languages in which adjectives readily become nouns, present participles are often used as one way of creating actor nouns, that is, nouns meaning persons or things performing the action indicated by the verb. English is full of such nouns borrowed from those languages, especially from Latin: president (praesidens ‘presiding’), regent (regens ‘ruling’), secant (secans ‘cutting’), tangent (tangens ‘touching’) and hundreds of others. There is also commandant from French (‘commanding’), phenomenon from Greek (φαινόμενον ‘appearing’). While these languages have other ways of forming actor nouns, the present-participle form sometimes is used to distinguish meanings: in French imprimeur is a printer (person) while imprimante is a printer (machine); in Spanish viajero means traveler in general while viajante means specifically a traveling salesman.

Hebrew, too, has various ways of forming actor nouns. For example, melekh ‘king’ comes from mālakh (‘to reign’), and gannābh ‘thief’ (leading via Yiddish to the English ganef or gonif) from gānabh (‘to steal’). But the past-participle way is by far the most common one, in both classical and modern Hebrew, in the same way that the suffix –er is the most common one English. For example, the usual word for ‘enemy’ is sōnē, which is the present participle of sānē ‘to hate’. In Exodus 23:5, for example, the Septuagint (compiled at a time when Hebrew was still a living language) renders sōnē as the noun ἐχθρός ‘enemy’. On the other hand the Vulgate (written long after Hebrew had died out) chooses to interpret it as the present participle odiens ‘hating’. But it is still used as a noun, and a reasonable translation into English would be hater. (A similar thing happens in Deuteronomy 7:10, though there the Septuagint has something more like ‘hater’.) This is not, however, what English translators, from Wycliffe on, choose to do. Since they cannot use hating directly, they write him that hateth.

There a great many cases like this: him that remaineth for ‘survivor’; him that smiteth (or smote) for ‘smiter’ or ‘killer’. But my favorite is the translation of maštīn baqqīr (‘pissing on the wall’) as (him, one or any) that pisseth against the wall.

Modern translations usually render this phrase as male, and that is in fact the meaning. It occurs six times, always in narratives from the time of the kingdoms and in the context of actual or threatened extermination. In my opinion it was, in all likelihood, soldier slang. It cries for a pithy, slangy translation rather than a churchy one. Shakespeare would probably have written it as wall-pisser, on a par with ratcatcher (Romeo and Juliet) or idiot-worshipper (Troilus and Cressida). Can you imagine Mercutio saying “Tybalt, thou that catchest rats”? Or Thersites “idol of them that worship idiots”? Not me.

Hate crime

April 28, 2015

I have always had a hard time understanding the concept of “hate crimes.” I fail to see what makes a hate-driven crime more grievous than one motivated by greed, lust, anger or any other “bad” emotion, or, for that matter, a crime performed in cold blood.

I think I can honestly say that in my relatively long life (I am a week short of eighty years old) I have truly and deeply hated only one person: Adolf Hitler. If by some chance I or some like-minded person had managed to kill Hitler, then that would have been a hate crime. For that matter, most if not all of the many attempted and successful tyrannicides in history, when performed by oppressed people, would qualify as hate crimes. And yet their perpetrators are usually celebrated as heroes.

Recently, someone painted a crude swastika on the door of the ΣAE fraternity house at Stanford University and, as Nanette Asimov of the San Francisco Chronicle reports, “[s]omeone painted swastikas and a pentagram on the Stanford University campus over the weekend in what university officials are calling a hate crime.” Here is a picture of the crime:

swastikaAs is known to many people, the swastika is a decorative symbol that appears in many cultures. But as should also be known, the Nazi swastika has the peculiar property of having its arms at 45º to the horizontal and vertical, not parallel to them. Having lived under Nazi occupation as a child for almost six years, I can assure you that the swastika in the picture above (which Asimov’s article erronously calls a “Nazi symbol”) does not in the least make me think of the one below:

naziGiven the recent racist history of  ΣAE, the swastika may be some sort of twisted comment about that, and have nothing to do with the fact that the Stanford chapter, supposedly, has a large proportion of Jewish members. Moreover, a swastika was also found on the Casa Italiana, and along with it a pentagram, whatever it may mean; no picture was shown.

My suggestion: let’s stop calling “hate crime” whatever offends somebody or other’s delicate sensibilities, and let’s treat vandalism for what it is.


Prunus and Pronto

April 20, 2015

Discussion of the California drought is not limited to California anymore. One topic that gets a lot attention (even a segment on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart) is almonds and their supposedly inordinate consumption of water.

I love almonds. I east a handful of them (unsalted dry-roasted) almost every day. I love them almost as much as peaches, which are, as far as I can think about it, my favorite food of all. And guess what! The almond tree (Prunus dulcis) and the peach tree (P. persica) do not only belong to the same genus, but the same subgenus Amygdalus. I am not a dendrologist, or a biologist of any sort, but to me it seems unreasonable that two tree species of the same genus or subgenus would have drastically different water requirements. But I haven’t heard any complaints about peaches or plums or apricots or cherries.

At any rate, I am willing to sacrifice some of my own water use if my doing so will help keep the Prunus crops growing. I know it’s unlikely, but there’s always the categorical imperative.

One of the ways in which I can save a little water is, since I am also a big eater of pasta, by using a new product from Barilla called Pronto. It’s a pasta made not just with wheat flour but also with semolina, and it consequently absorbs its cooking water, like rice or couscous. To cook 6 ounces (175 g) of pasta requires only 1½ cups (360 ml) of water, instead of the several liters for conventional pasta, and none of the water is wasted. And since you start with cold water, time is saved as well. Since to me pasta is pasta (I don’t care if it’s fresh or dried), the result is completely satisfactory. Bravo Pronto!

KJV and ST

April 18, 2015

Wolf Hall, the BBC series, is currently airing on PBS in the United States. I have already read its namesake novel and the latter’s sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, and the TV series is reinforcing two strong reactions that the books provoked in me.

One is the use of language. Perhaps because it is heard and not merely read, the utter modernity of the characters’ English speech is even more striking on TV. I find it somewhat alienating, because it is so at odds with the costumes and setting and habits. It’s almost as if I expect Thomas Cromwell to pull out a mobile phone in order to check in with Henry VIII. What also struck me in the books, though it hasn’t done so yet on TV, is that when a character quotes the Bible he does so in the language of the King James Version, or perhaps that of Tyndale (the main basis of the KJV). In historical reality this is precisely the language in which they would have been conversing, while they would be quoting the Bible in Latin. Tyndale’s translation — written in the common language of his day — was just then being published, and owning it was forbidden. Those familiar with the Bible would know it only in Latin. And while Wolf Hall does not shrink from Latin speech by the characters, such speech does not include biblical quotations.

The King James Version is, in fact, not written in the English of King James (the First of England and Sixth of Scotland) but in that of James’s great-granduncle, Henry VIII. But once the Reformation took hold, the Tyndale translations became the basis of all the later English Bibles, and English and Scottish Protestants accepted its language — which is also that of the Book of Common Prayer — to be appropriately Biblical, including features that were pretty much obsolete in English by the early 17th century; for example, the use of “yes” or “no” only in response to questions in the negative, while questions in the affirmative were to be answered “yea” or “nay”; for another example, the use of “thou” as the singular second-person subject pronoun used between people of equal rank (except on the lowest rungs of the social scale, as still used — in the form tha — in rural Yorkshire). (“You” occurs once, in the Book of Ruth, and it was probably a slip that wasn’t caught.) I have a lot more to say about the linguistic infelicities of the KJV, and I will do so at some length in a later post.

My other reaction is to the portrayal of Thomas More as a highly unsympathetic character. I have no problem with such a characterization per se, nor with his being made a saint by the Catholic Church. The Church’s criteria for sainthood are its own, and concern mainly the person’s significance to its agenda. John of Capistrano, as I have written here, was one of history’s great Jew-haters. No, what bothers me is the fact that in British crosswords of the cryptic variety, of which I have recently become an addict,the clue “good man” is often used to refer to the letters ST. This is not the only such clue; since “St.” can also be the abbreviation of “street”, possible clues are also “street”, “way” or “road”. And we often say “he is a saint” as a way of saying that he is a very good man, but in that case we don’t (except jokingly) abbreviate “saint” as “St.” My point is that ST does not by itself denote a good man (or woman). Some saints have been good, some have been evil, and some in between, while what has historically been the most prominent qualification for sainthood, martyrdom, is neither good nor evil by itself. In fact, a simple acceptance of the fact that both good and evil are inherent in human nature — and on a continuum, not in a dualistic way, sometimes in the same person — obviates many a needless philosophical dilemma. When pro-religion advocates point to the many good things that people have done motivated by their faith, one need only respond by pointing  to the many evil things done with the same motivation as well as to the good things done out of innate altruism.

And so, when I write the letters S and T in their appropriate squares referenced by a clue that contains “good man”, I hope that the gnashing of my teeth reaches the setter’s ears.

House style

April 7, 2015

Last week’s issue of The New Yorker carried an article titled “The System,” by Adam Kirsch, about the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. It ran under the Books rubric because it purported to be a review — but was in fact an uncritical summary, devoid of comparison with other sources — of a book titled KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps by Nikolaus Wachsmann, a young German-English academic who is a professor at Birckbeck, University of London, specializing in studying the Nazi legal system. Now, KL — an abbreviation of Konzentrationslager — is the abbreviation designating ‘concentration camp’ that is most commonly found in the documents of the Nazi bureaucracy, but to all non-bureaucrats who were there — whether as inmates or as guards — the universally used abbreviation was KZ, sometimes spelled out phonetically as Kazett (pronounced kah-TSETT). I haven’t read Wachsmann’s book, and perhaps the point of view that he wants to give is precisely that of the administrators, though no such aspect comes through in the “review.”

In fact, Kirsch persistently uses the abbreviation KL when referring to concentration camps in his article, or at least probably did so in the version that he submitted. In the printed version the abbreviation appears as K.L., with periods, just as SS appears as S.S. This is because the New Yorker’s house style dictates that abbreviations which are not acronyms (such as NATO) carry periods: N.G.O. not NGO, and so on. This sort of makes sense if the abbreviation consists of the initials of individual words. But this is not the case in German, in which the abbreviated words are single compound nouns (SS, similarly, stands for Schutzstaffel). In fact, it would be a reasonable rule that an abbreviation that is borrowed from another language should be left as is. But the New Yorker’s tyrannical and famously quirky house style allows no deviation.

[I should add here, for the sake of honest reporting, that in some typed documents from concentration-camp administrations the abbreviation does appear as K. L., as seen below; but this comes from an office (Häftlingsschreibstube) manned by inmates, not necessarily German, and is not standard German practice.Transportlisten]

One of the joys of being self-published is the freedom from adhering to a publisher’s house style. I enjoy this freedom in this blog and in my novels published on Amazon Kindle. And when my book Plasticity Theory was reissued by Dover Publications, it was my own PDF of the book that was printed, since Dover, being a reprint specialist, has no house style of its own. It was a very different matter when dealing with a first-tier publisher for a mechanics textbook that I recently wrote with a colleague. While the copy-editors nominally consulted us about some changes, they made a great many more without any such consultation, and the book as it came out was in many ways (though, I hope, not in its substance) a disaster. We were able to persuade the publisher to issue a second edition, in which we took care to make everything conform to house style as much as possible. Our contract for the new edition has just been approved, and all I can do now is hope for the best.

More calf to the board

April 5, 2015

I wrote a post the other day about word-for-word mistranslations of the titles of some novels by Mario Vargas Llosa. I didn’t mean to limit myself to MVL, but I ran out of time. So I would like to add a few more.

Let me start with a very famous one: Gabriel García Márquez’ Cien años de soledad, known in English as One Hundred Years of Solitude.

OK, cien does mean ‘one hundred’ or ‘a hundred’. But Latin cultures don’t treat numbers as precisely as Germanic ones. The Spanish Golden Age is known in Spanish as el Siglo de Oro, which, as the Wikipedia article makes clear, “does not imply precise dates and is usually considered to have lasted longer than an actual century.” In a famous bolero titled Cien años, the singer declares “y si vivo cien años, cien años pienso en ti” (‘if I live a hundred years, for a hundred years I will think of you’) without ever implying that exactly 100 years are meant, only a long time. On the other hand, in English ‘one hundred’ sounds even more precise than ‘a hundred’, which allows a little slack in popular usage.

And soledad does mean ‘solitude'; it also means ‘loneliness’. In English these are very different states, the former being one of dejection and the latter one of freedom. It would seem clear from reading the book that GGM’s soledad as a characteristic of the Buendía family is loneliness, accompanied by sadness.

And so, what would be a good translation of the title? In the 1955 song Unchained Melody there appears the line “A long, lonely time”. I think this would convey the intended meaning perfectly.

Of course, the mother of “calf to the board” translations is the title under which François Truffaut’s film Les Quatre Cents Coups released in English: The 400 Blows. This word-for-word mistranslation has been discussed for a long time (as in Wikipedia), but I would like to add that one possible clue to the origin of the idiom “faire les quatre cents coups” is precisely the fact that the word coup has a great many meanings besides ‘blow’, especially in the form coup de followed by another noun, and that quatre (like Spanish cuatro or Italian quattro) doesn’t always mean ‘four’ but can mean ‘a few’, and so quatre cents means ‘a few hundred’, that is, a lot; and so faire les quatre cents coups means doing a lot of the things that can be called coup.

And as long as we’re at the movies, let me bring up a retitling that is a non-translation: Carlos Saura’s Cría cuervos was released in the US as Cria! Now, this word means absolutely nothing in English, and it can’t possibly be a Spanish word, because in Spanish an exclamation mark after a word or phrase requires an upside-down one before it. The Spanish word cría, with an acute accent on the i, as a noun means ‘litter’ or ‘baby animal'; but in the title it’s the singular imperative of the verb criar meaning ‘raise’, ‘rear’, ‘bring up’ or the like. Cría cuervos means ‘Raise ravens’ (the title under which the film was released in the UK), and just as to someone who knows French “les quatre cents coups” brings to mind the full phrase “faire les quatre cents coups“, so to someone who knows Spanish (as explained here) it is an anapodoton for the saying Cría cuervos y te sacarán los ojos.

Calf to the board

April 2, 2015

Not quite by coincidence, I recently read Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest novel, El héroe discreto, just as the English version was coming out amid critical hoopla. The title of the translation is, unsurprisingly, The Discreet Hero. A literal translation, to be sure. Nothing wrong with that, is there?

Well, yes and no. I have done some translating in my life, and I have always believed that the title should bear, more or less, the same relationship to the content in translation that it does in the original. Does it, in this case?

I would guess that the English-speaking reader, on seeing a novel titled The Discreet Hero, would assume that it’s about a character who in some way — perhaps ironically — embodies the two qualities named in the title. But in fact this novel is about three such characters. The reader would then wonder: which one of them is the discreet hero? Don Felícito, Don Rigoberto, or Don Ismael?

What about the reader of the original? Well, someone familiar with Spanish literature would know that the title is a conflation of two classic titles from the Spanish Baroque, El Héroe and El Discreto by Baltazar Gracián. The former (1637, The Hero) is “a criticism of Machiavelli, drawing a portrait of the ideal Christian leader”, while the latter (1646, The Complete Gentleman) “described the qualities which make the sophisticated man of the world” (descriptions from Wikipedia). Neither embodies what we nowadays think of a heroism or discretion, but then Gracián was known for his highly idiosyncratic way with words, and in any case what matters is the titles, not the content. Probably not that many people nowadays have read the books, but it’s generally known that they are didactic treatises of a “how-to” variety.

By basing the title of his novel on these classic titles, Vargas Llosa lets us know that he has written a didactic novel, showing us by means of three entertaining examples that one can be brave without being reckless and discrete without being timid. If I had been the translator I would have tried to make the title reflect this. Perhaps How to Be [or Being or On Being] a Discreet Hero, or Discreet Heroes, or maybe, à la Jane Austen, Heroism and Discretion.

Word-for-word translations that don’t convey the intended meaning are famous from the world of menus (for example here). My favorite, which I encountered in Spain in the 1980s, is “Calf to the board” as a translation of ternera a la plancha (which means grilled veal or beef). But they are not what one would expect in the world of literature.

Let’s look at another Vargas Llosa novel, La Fiesta del Chivo, tiled The Feast of the Goat in English. If you scan the title word by word, la does indeed mean ‘the'; fiesta may be translated as ‘feast’ (though in a very limited sense); del means ‘of the'; and chivo means ‘goat’, though also in a limited sense. ‘Goat’ as the name of a species, with no reference to gender, is cabra, and chivo means very specifically a billy-goat. Note that the word is capitalized in the title, implying that it’s used as though it were a proper noun, and El Chivo was in fact one of the nicknames given to Rafael Trujillo (around whom the novel revolves) on account of his notorious randiness. ‘The Billy-goat’ would have been an adequate translation, since “as horny as a billy-goat” is a common English expression. But just plain ‘goat’? No way.

How about fiesta, then? It can, of course, mean ‘feast’ in the sense of a periodic religious holiday, but not in the sense (far more common in English) of a large and sumptuous meal. The title The Feast of the Goat would, I believe, evoke a banquet at which goat is served, or perhaps a religious ritual at which a goat is worshiped or sacrificed.

Needless to say, the book is about none of the above. It’s about a party (by far the most current meaning of fiesta) that is supposed given by the Billy-goat and to which the novel’s female protagonist is invited, except that she turns out to be the only guest and is duly raped by the dictator. The Billy-Goat’s Party would have perfectly conveyed the meaning of the title in relation to the book.

But then there is the case of another Vargas Llosa title that was not translated literally, and should have been. La tía Julia y el escribidor was rendered as Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. Now, escribidor means ‘scribbler’ or whatever other word one might use for a bad writer. ‘Scriptwriter’ sounds like someone who might be a bigwig in Hollywood or on television, but in this book the character writes silly scripts (yes) for a provincial radio station.

Then there is the mystery, which I’ve never solved, of why Vargas Llosa’s first novel, La ciudad y los perros (‘The City and the Dogs’), was published in English as The Time of the Hero. Perhaps, the book being by a heretofore unknown author, the translator felt freer  But then I never actually read the book.


March 10, 2015

With the possible exception of some Chelsea fans, hardly anybody likes to be called a racist. But these days it’s very easy to be called a racist, if only facetiously, when one expresses an opinion that members of a given ethnic or cultural group are more prone to certain kinds of behavior than those of other groups. I’ve done it myself (facetiously). There’s no need to give examples.

Of course I don’t want to be called a racist. I have experienced racism in its crudest form — that of the Nazis toward the Jews — and I don’t want the term to be trivialized. But like many other people I have found by observation that different ethnic, national or religious groups do in fact exhibit characteristic traits of behavior, some laudable and some not.

Whether such groups constitute “races” is a matter of semantics. Among northern Europeans and their descendants it’s common to use race in  a genetic sense, whether defined by skin color as in North America, or just by ancestry as in Europe; the Jews and the Gypsies constitute races, and to the English even the Irish were a race. In southern Europe the equivalent term (e.g. raza in Spanish) has more of a cultural connotation. Hispanics in the United States often refer to themselves as la Raza, though according to the U.S. Census they may be “of any race”. The term la Raza originated among Spanish intellectuals of the so-called Generation of 98, marked by Spain’s loss of its overseas empire in the wake of the Spanish-American war, and was intended to replace Spain’s position as the metropolis of an empire by that of the motherland (la madre patria) of all the peoples that had inherited its language and culture, be they European colonists, indigenous Indians or Filipinos, or exiled Jews; all of these make up la Raza. The greatest among these intellectuals, Miguel de Unamuno, wrote a poignant article, shortly after Hitler’s rise to power, insisting that la Raza had nothing to do with the Nazis’ biological concept or race.  Even Hitler’s friend Franco, who wrote the screenplay of a film titled Raza, meant it only to denote an ideal of what it means to be a Spaniard.

But because “race” is such a controversial term, perhaps it’s best to follow the practice of most contemporary American anthropologists and avoid using it. In my mind, what determines typical group behavior is the group’s culture, not its ancestry, and the group’s members can be expected to share in these characteristics only of they are brought up in its cultural milieu.

I thought that I would substitute the word “culturist” for “racist” to designate someone who makes generalizations on people’s behavior on the basis of ethnicity. But “culturist” already has a number of meanings: one is “cultivator”; another is “advocate of culture”. On the other hand, the unabridged Merriam-Webster has the word culturalist, defined as “one that emphasizes the importance of culture in determining behavior”. Maybe “emphasizes” is a bit strong; if we simply substitute “believes in” we get the definition of a word that pretty much describes what I mean to say.

And so, if I’m ever called a racist for saying that such-and-such is typical so-and-so behavior, I will say, “No, I’m a culturalist.”

Of course, there is also an obscure philosophical school called culturalism. I don’t know anything about it, so I don’t know if I’m a philosophical culturalist.


Realistic money

February 5, 2015

Last Sunday, in the latest Downtown Abbey episode shown in the United States, Mrs. Patmore revealed that she had come into some money, with which she was going to buy a house in nearby small town or village (whose name, like Cervantes, I don’t want to remember, since it’s probably just as fictitious as Downton). And how much money was that? £300.

Well, I wondered, what does that mean in today’s pounds?

When a news story recounts a monetary transaction that took place in the past, there is usually a parenthetical note saying “x in today’s dollars”. But, according the website MeasuringWorth, there are quite a few ways of calculating the relative worth of money over the years, ranging from the Consumer Price Index (CPI) in the US and the Retail Price Index (RPI) in the UK — the most commonly used measure, often called the “real price” — to the GDP per capita index (called the “income value”), with several others in between. Of course standards of living have varied greatly over the years, and some things that may have been a luxury in the past are now within almost everybody’s reach. MeasuringWorth gives the example of the Ford Model T, which was introduced in 1909 at the price of $850 and would cost almost two years’ wages of a typical worker. By 1925, however, the price was $290, and car ownership was beginning to be the norm in the US. For this price, the 2012 values “range from $3,800 (the real price) to $19,000 (the income value).” Obviously, it’s the latter one that is much closer the price of a new entry-level car, even if the car bears little resemblance to the Model T. In 2015, a Ford Fiesta is advertised at around $15,000 to $16,000 but the actual price, with everything included, is around $18,000 to $19,000. Now the ratio of 18,500 to 290 is very nearly 64, and a 64-fold increase over 90 years is equivalent to a doubling every 15 years, since 2015 − 90 = 6 × 15 and 64 = 26.

For some time I have found the rule of a doubling every 15 years to be a handy guide to a realistic (not “real” in economists’ terms) measure of inflation. Going back to the time when I became an adult, about 60 years ago, I remember that a first-class postage stamp was 3 cents and a cup of coffee 10 to 15. Today first-class postage is $0.49 and a cup of brewed coffee (except in specialty cafés) ranges from $1.50 to $2.50. Now 60 = 4 × 15 and 24 = 16. Note that this factor works quite well for both coffee and postage.

For the last three decades, the Big Mac Index has been a popular measure for synchronic purchasing-power comparison between currencies. But it can also be used diachronically within a given currency. The Big Mac was introduced by McDonald’s in 1967 in a few locations at $0.55, but by 1970 it was popular worldwide, and cost an average of $0.60 in the US. Today it is said to average $4.80 — a factor of 8. Now 2015 − 1970 = 45 = 3 × 15, and  23 = 8. Bingo!

Doubling in 15 years corresponds to an annual inflation rate of about 4.73% (since 21/15  = 1.0473). But this rate also means that the value of money decreases by a factor of 10 over 50 years (since 1.047350 ≈ 10), and by a factor of 100 over 100 years. This last is a convenient, easy-to-remember result, and I like to call my formula the one-hundred rule.

For other time periods the following results hold: 1.6 over 10 years; 2.5 over 20 years; 6.35 (6 can be used, since this is not an exact measure) over 40 years; and 40 over 80 years.

The rule I have described applies, of course, only to the US dollar, which for at least the last century has been the global hallmark of monetary stability. In countries with fluctuating currencies prices for most commodities are usually set in dollars (even in countries nominally hostile to the US, such as Cuba and Iran) and converted to the local currency on a day-by-day basis. What about the pound sterling, then?

The simplest way to deal with the problem of non-dollar currencies is to convert to dollars according to the rates of the comparison years. Until 1940 the pound held fairly steady at $4.86. Now it’s at $1.50. Since the episode takes place in 1924 or 1925, we have to multiply the 90-year inflation factor of 64 by 4.86/1.50 = 3.24, getting around 200 (there is no point in using anything but round numbers). This means that Mrs. Patmore’s £300 is now worth around £60,000. Is it possible to get a three-bedroom house in a North Yorkshire village for about that amount?

Here’s what I found on Zoopla after searching for 3-bedroom houses in North Yorkshire and discounting Middlesbrough, a big city where the real-estate market seems to be depressed:


Skelton-in-Cleveland is, according to Wikipedia, a small town rather than a village, but with a population of around 6,000 it’s close enough. I rest my case.




Multilingual label

January 27, 2015

The eminent sinologist Victor Mair, a frequent contributor to Language Log, likes to post about linguistic oddities to be found  on signs, labels, menus and the like that are written at least partly in East Asian Languages, especially when Chinese characters are involved.

I have before me a box of cookies of the type called mandelbroyt in Yiddish (literally ‘almond-bread,’ sometimes anglicized as mandelbread). They are pretty much the equivalent of what are known as biscotti in North America and cantuccini in Italy, one of many instances where an Italian culinary term is used with a different meaning from what it has in Italian (latte, gelato, prosciutto, marinara, pepperoni…).

Here is the label, with some cookies in the background (the box is made of clear plastic):


The label seems to be bilingual. The Hebrew characters on the second line do, in fact, represent a translation of the English on the first line (kehilla is a Hebrew word meaning ‘community,’ and specifically, at least historically, the organized Jewish community of a city). But a translation into what?

Reading from right to left, the first two words,  השגחת קהילה, mean ‘supervision of kehilla’ in Hebrew. So far so good.

The next character, ד, is a one-letter word pronounced [də] and meaning ‘of,’ but in Aramaic, not Hebrew!

It’s a rule of Hebrew writing, by the way, that one-letter words (mainly prepositions, conjunctions and articles) are attached to the following word. This is not the case if the letters represent abbreviations, but then they must be followed by a period or an apostrophe; most notable are the abbreviations ’י  and ’ה  representing יהוה (Yahweh, which of course must never, never be pronounced).

Now, what follows ד is לאס אנדזשעלעס, which is Los Angeles; but it is transcribed in Yiddish, not in Hebrew, in which it’s  לוס אנג’לס. In the Los part, note that Hebrew uses ו (vav) and Yiddish א (aleph; strictly speaking it should be אׇ) for the vowel represented by o. In Angeles, Yiddish has ע (‘ayin) for the vowels represented by e while Hebrew does not show them. And, finally, for the “soft g” ([dʒ]) sound Hebrew uses ‘ג, while Yiddish uses the trigraph דזש (something like dzsh).

So this simple-looking label is in fact quadrilingual!


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