Today, we’re going to play with Missiles!

And I am back, after a brief hiatus.  Meanwhile, my prediction of the Jamahiriya’s 42nd birthday has been abundantly fulfilled, and I’ve unaccountably managed to get myself quite a lot of freelance work, much of which involved tight deadlines.  It is this which has lamentably taken the edge off my ability to blog.  But I have returned now to present you with a post about MATHS, and in particular the language of maths.  For all that I blog about (and am fiercely obsessed by) politics, I am also fascinated by linguistics, and I can no longer bear that the most recent post about language on this blog dates from 15 months ago.

For the last few weeks I’ve been helping in the preparation of a series of elementary maths textbooks for distribution in the UAE, largely through translation or rewriting other people’s translations.  These other translations have, at times, been excellent; they have also, far more frequently, been dreadful.  Notable examples include:
– the word “rocket” (properly صاروخ ṣārūkh) translated as صاروخ عابر للقارات ṣārūkh ‘ābir li-l-qārrāt “Intercontinental (Ballistic) Missile”
– the word “bathtub” (properly rendered حوض حمّام ḥawḍ ḥammām) translated as قدر للطهي qadr li-ṭ-ṭahy “cooking pot”
– uncountable references to non-UAE things like Flakes, roller coasters, ice lollies, toffee, cub scout badges, Roman gladiators, hummingbirds, football chants, beanstalks, Mexican jumping beans, the song Yellow Submarine and so on.

Aside from all this, I have discovered a far more widely-reaching problem.  On the first day I had a conversation about the exercise books with my contact at the publishing company, which went roughly like this:

ME: I’ll have to see the texts first before I agree to translate them.
CONTACT: Oh, that’s fine.  I shouldn’t imagine there’ll be a problem.  The language is quite simple, you know, for five- and six-year-olds.  It just needs to be translated into simple Arabic, so they can understand it easily.
ME: If these textbooks are meant to be easily comprehensible for five-year-olds they shouldn’t be translated into Standard Arabic.
CONTACT: (laughs)
ME: No, I’m serious.  They won’t have a clue what’s going on.

Here’s a quick illustration of one of the problems presented by Arabic maths textbooks.  One of the most common ways of presenting mathematical sums to children is to give them some kind of word problem, along the lines of “Jane has twenty elephants.  Brian massacres nine of them.  Now Jane has ___ elephants.” It is this last sentence which poses so many problems because the rules governing nouns with numbers in Arabic are so varied and so complex.  I won’t go into them, but almost all nouns can take at least three forms, and several nouns which have countable and uncountable forms (often types of fruit or trees, but also buttons, beads, and the like) can have more than that depending if you want to stress the individual items or the overall group.  So here’s the problem: in the example above, what do I write for ‘Now Jane has ____ elephants’? Do I write the correct numerical form for eleven, the accusative singular, and risk grammatically assisting the students with their maths lessons? Or do I put elephants in the plural so as not to give them a leg up, and confuse them when their correct answer doesn’t form a coherent sentence?

This may seem minor, but consider the following: “Jane has ten elephants.  Brian massacres nine of them.  Now Jane has ____…” What does she have exactly? Jane has ___ elephant? That gives the answer away immediately.  How about the alternative: Jane has 1 elephants? That’s ungrammatical.  Now imagine that this situation extended far beyond the relatively simple singular/plural issue: in Arabic there are separate nominal forms for 1, 2, 3-10, 11 onwards, and round large numbers, such as 100, 500, 1700, etc.  I have no particular solution to this; I’ve simply calculated the answer and written in the appropriate form of the noun for that answer, but that’s by no means any kind of Authoritative Answer.

And then there’s the problem of vocabulary: in English, forcing children to learn the terms for various mathematical concepts is generally straightforward – words like circle, square, rectangle, triangle, even cuboid, are all short and relatively easy to remember.  But Arabic, although it has brief native terms for more complex algebraic concepts (having often invented them – see the picture link), often lacks easy words and employs descriptive phrases instead.  The phrase متوازي مستطيلات mutawāzī mustaṭīlāt, literally “of parallel rectangles”, is a nice eight-syllable alternative to the disyllabic English word cuboid.

A page of al-Khwarizmi’s book on Algebra

Mathematical vocabulary in Arabic is also rife with synonyms.  Even one of the words for ‘mathematics’ also means ‘sport’! The words ثنائي thunā’ī and ثلاثي thulāthī are derived from the root letters for two and three TH-N-Y and TH-L-TH.  Unfortunately, this means that these words have acquired a great versatility and can mean not only double- and triple-digit numbers, but also 2-D and 3-D shapes.  As you ascend higher, the terms for pentagon, hexagon, etc., also intersect with these forms, so that سباعي subā’ī means a seven-digit number, a seven-dimensional shape, and a heptagon.  Thankfully, the rarity of two of those three options clarifies the meaning in all but the most abstruse cases, but that should not obscure the complications present in having the same word for different concepts.  As a further bonus, the word مضاعفات muḍā’afāt refers to both doubles and multiples of a number – but this is to be expect as its root verb, ضاعف ḍā’afa means both ‘to double’ and ‘to multiply’.

Thus endeth today’s linguamathematical object lesson.  Our regular programming will resume shortly.


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