He Say, He Sigh, He Sow #42

« Il n’y avait plus dans la rue que les boutiquiers et les chats. » — Albert Camus, L’Étranger (1942).

    “There was no longer anything in the street but shopkeepers and cats.” — Camus, The Outsider.

He Say, He Sigh, He Sow #39

— Croyez-vous aux idées dangereuses ?
— Qu’entendez-vous par là ?
— Croyez-vous que certaines idées soient aussi dangereuses pour certains esprits que le poison pour le corps ?
— Mais, oui, peut-être.

  Guy de Maupassant, « Divorce » (1888)

“Do you believe in dangerous ideas?”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Do you believe that certain ideas are as dangerous for some minds as poison is for the body?”
“Well, yes, perhaps.”

I Have a Threem

And now I have another. My first “threem”, or “three-M”, for this bijou bloguette was the alliterative three-word Latin phrase Mathematica Magistra Mundi, meaning “Mathematics Mistress of the World”. I also use it in the form Mathematica Machina Mundi, which has a variety of translations. In both Latin phrases, the words have five, three and two syllables, respectively. That’s the first three prime numbers in reverse and also part of the Fibonacci sequence in reverse.

You can find the same alliteration in languages derived from Latin, like the French La Mathématique, Maîtresse du Monde, but you don’t get the same syllable-count. So how likely was it that everything – the same alliteration and the same syllable-count – would appear in a language unrelated to Latin? But it does. Here’s a Georgian translation of the threem:

მათემატიკა მსოფლიოს მეფე

Matemat’ik’a Msoplios Mepe

“Mathematics the World’s King”

Msoplios isn’t a typo: Georgian is famous for its exotic consonant clusters and მს- / ms- isn’t a particularly unusual example. But it’s one I particularly like.

The Power of Babel

“…par la suggestive lecture d’un ouvrage racontant de lointains voyages…” – J.K. Huysmans, À Rebours (1884).

The language you know best is also the language you know least: your mother tongue, the language you acquired by instinct and speak by intuition. Asking a native speaker to describe English, French or Quechua is rather like asking a fish to describe water. The native speaker, like the fish, knows the answer very intimately, yet in some ways doesn’t know as well as a non-native speaker. In other words, standing outside can help you better understand standing inside: there is good in the gap. What is it like to experience gravity? Like most humans, I’ve known all my life, but I’d know better if I were in orbit or en route to the moon, experiencing the absence of gravity.

And what is it like to be human? We all know and we’ve all read countless stories about other human beings. But in some ways they don’t answer that question as effectively as stories that push humanity to the margins, like Richard Adams’ Watership Down (1972), which is about rabbits, or Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves (also 1972), which is about trisexual aliens in a parallel dimension. There is good in the gap, in stepping outside the familiar and looking back to see the familiar anew.

Continuing reading The Power of Babel