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Jocelyn Paine

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You Say Math, I Say Maths

June 14, 2009

In last week's posting about The Princeton Companion to Mathematics, Mark Nelson referred to "that vanishingly small group: people who actually like math. (Or maths, as Jocelyn might say.)" But why do Americans say math while I say maths? I tried looking this up, but didn't find anything useful. Not even in the Oxford English Dictionary. Though one posting did inform me that math is singular because "they can only work on one problem at a time". Probably, its author was not American. Nevertheless, I have a soft spot for the question, because of a mistake I once made in Athens. So I'll tell you about that instead.

In the 1990s, I spent several visits to Athens working for a software company. Athens may have been cleaned up since, but then, it was notorious as the dirtiest capital in Europe. The sort of place you can find half a dead dog on every street.

Despite this, Athenian mornings were so wonderful. There was SUN! (I'm English.) Sitting outside a café for breakfast eating honey and sheep yoghurt from battered tin dishes while ticket sellers wandered past with strings of lottery tickets hanging from poles. Walking up the exit steps from the dimness of the Metro station, the sunlight and the noise and grime of Omonia Square expanding before me. I would become equally aware of both, but the sunlight was so intense, and made me feel so joyful, that the noise and grime didn't matter. When I returned to Oxford, even on a sunny afternoon I could see the darkness and gloom behind every patch of light.

I had learnt some Greek before my first visit, but it's always good to know more. I've gained a lot by learning enough of the languages of countries I've visited to be able to understand at least some of the lyrics of their music. Be it Sérgio Godinho in Portugal, Manos Hadjidakis in Greece, or Hubert von Goisern und die Alpinkatzen from Austria: "Alpenrock" music, like the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band but with accordions and yodelling. (I do recommend a lovely sad-sweet song they do called Weit, weit weg. It's on YouTube.)

Besides, for part of these visits, I was living in a hotel which was full of models! I'd chosen it because it was one of the few buildings in Athens that didn't have traffic running past all four sides; and after I'd booked in, I discovered it was where Ford Models sent their people for shoots. This explained why, when the hotel's owner had shown me round the hotel common room and communal kitchen — not many hotels have a residents' kitchen, but this one did — everyone looked so healthy. Actually, as I booked in, a girl happened to walk out of the lift towards me. "You mustn't mind that we're all so beautiful" she said, "because, you know, we're models."

The models were mostly female and American. Though at their Thanksgiving party, I met a man who had spent five years at Hewlett-Packard, got fed up with office life, made himself a portfolio, and become a male model: the kind of slightly-better-looking-than-average Mr. Average who appears in ads for razors, exfoliators, and men's handmade natural soap. He explained to me how frustrating life was for the models. Their favourite recreations were eating, drinking, and staying up late in nightclubs. Self-defeating if you want to keep your looks.

The models couldn't amuse themselves by reading or chatting to the locals, because none of them had learned Greek. They invited me to a restaurant one night — really, a small café with a big takeaway counter and lots of chicken and fish on display in the window. The only way they managed to order was by pointing.

So learning more Greek was definitely indicated; which is where I needed the energy given me by the Athenian sun. Because I noticed an advert for intensive Greek courses run, for not-quite-beginners, by the Hellenic American Union. I wandered round to their office one night and took a preliminary test: a sheet of paper headed Σωστό ή λάθος Right or wrong — on which I had to tick or cross against twenty sentences for errors in vocabulary and grammar. This deemed me a not-quite-beginner, and I booked a course.

When I say "intensive", I mean it. The course was three hours a day, every weekday. Except November 17th. In 1973, there had been a famous protest against the Junta, which the local anarchists celebrated every year. There would be a motor-cycle roar-past and some mild firebombing, and it was a good idea not to be in any building with an American flag outside it. So on that day, the Hellenic American Union closed.

Every other weekday, the course ran. So I arranged with the software company to attend the course between 9 am and noon, and then work between 12:30 to 8:30 pm. This was tiring.

But useful — because you need a lot of practice.You can know the grammar intellectually, but still not be able to execute it fast enough to keep up with a conversation.

The trouble is that Greek is highly inflected. For example, nouns have four cases: nominative, accusative, genitive, and vocative. The ending of a noun changes to indicate its case. So the dog sees the dog of the dog becomes ο σκύλος βλέπει το σκύλο του σκύλου. The σκύλος is the dog doing the seeing: nominative. The σκύλο is the one being seen: accusative. And the σκύλου is the one owning the one being seen: genitive. The word before each dog means the, and changes in order to agree with the noun. Which happens also with adjectives and some numbers.

In fact, there are three genders of noun, and the endings depend on the gender. Worse, each gender has several patterns of inflection — declensions — and the endings depend on this too. The only ending that is the same for all nouns (as far as I remember) is that for the genitive plural,  -ών. So wandering round the streets of Athens after work or at the weekend, practising grammar from my Hugo Greek in Three Months or my Levend Grieks: een praktische cursus (I'd come from Eindhoven, one time), I was always really pleased when I came across a genitive plural to memorise or translate. It was like learning a particularly irregular set of Unix commands, and feeling relief that at least when you wanted to read a file, they all used a -f option. 

By the way, if you've read Winston Churchill's My Early Life, you may remember his disgust at discovering he had to learn a Latin ending especially to say O table! Why would Romans talk to tables? But he'd have done the same in Greek: that's what the vocative is for. When my friend Petros's mum calls him down to dinner for a χωριάτικη σαλάτα — it means country salad, and is what we call a Greek salad — and a glass of retsina, she shouts not Πέτρος! but Πέτρε! 

Verbs in Greek are as troublesome as nouns. Firstly, they change to indicate aspect: whether the action is being done once or repeatedly. I pay — present tense — is πληρώνω. And the particle that makes a future tense is θα. But if you simply glue the two together and say θα πληρώνω, it means I will keep on paying. The waiter would be ecstatic to hear this; but what you actually must say is θα πληρώσω. The ν changes to σ, indicating once-only payment. Though some financial situations do require the continuous-time aspect. Such as translating the economy will be in recession

Related changes happen when you make a past tense. Moreover, some verbs add a prefix or change the syllable where the stress is. And some use completely different words, as with English go and went. I write, I wrote is γράφω, έγραψα. I cut present and past is κόβω, έκοψα. I leave, I left is φεύγω, έφυγα. I eat, I ate is τρώω, έφαγα. I see, I saw is βλέπω, είδα. (You would recognise the last two in the words bacteriophage and eidetic.)

In addition to these, you need to remember the ending for each person: I see is βλέπω but he sees is βλέπει. When I was in Athens, there was a large and very well-known meat factory which had advertising boards erected all round the city. These showed a sausage and the slogan βλέπεις Νίκας είναι καλό! I think this means you see Nikas is good!, Nikas being the meat factory's notional owner, and καλό being good. Though I may have misunderstood, because as I've explained it, it's dire advertising. 

At any rate, -ω -εις -ει are the personal endings you must learn for I, familiar you, and he, she, or it. Not to mention that there's another conjugation of verbs which has different endings, and that others are different again because though they have an active meaning, you write them as though they were passive. An example is κοιμάμαι which means I sleep. Unlike the I verbs above, it doesn't end in -ω. There's a saying, probably from scholars of ancient Greek: every verb is an enemy. Modern Greek has only one regular verb.

Such complexity isn't unusual for an Indo-European language. Travel overland, and you'll discover that Romanian and Bulgarian have their own intricacies. But as I said, it does mean you need lots of practice. In inflections, and in idioms. For example, there's an idiom for saying you like, or are pleased with, something.  Μου αρέσει Χιου Γκραντ means I like Hugh Grant. We were drilled in this again and again, having to think of an actor, a food, a film ... and tell the teacher we liked it. And hence we ended up able to call up the phrase immediately, without having to consciously translate it. (And note that translating word for word, as novices to language-learning sometimes try, often doesn't work.)

To keep us alert, the teacher would ask ten or so questions, each time picking a different member of the class at random. If they got the answer wrong, she corrected it and had us all chant the correct answer. This meant that the last thing heard would not be a student's mistake.

During one session on verbs, the teacher asked me what I'd learned. Έμαθαινα ... I replied, wrongly forming the past tense of μάθω, I learn. Wrongly, because the verb is irregular and the correct past is Έμαθα.

There's psychological evidence that we remember bad events better than good, presumably as a survival mechanism to stop us repeating mistakes. So I'm not surprised that I still remember this. But I remember it also because of the honourable place the verb occupies. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the French and English use of the plural mathematics, known from the 16th century, seems to have originated as an elliptic expression for mathematic sciences. That adjective mathematic, also first recorded in the 16th century, is adapted from French mathématiques or its Latin source mathēmaticus. This in turn is adapted from the Greek μαθηματικός, formed from μαθηματ-, μάθημαsomething learned or science. Which is from a root of μανθάνειν. Which is learn in ancient Greek.

But I still don't know why you people shorten it to math.


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