5+1 on both sides of the Channel

5-1English verbs are strange, for a European language. In the present tense, nearly all forms are the same: I see, you see, we see, you (guys) see and they see. But just when you start thinking that the present tense is a conjugation-free zone, you get the shock of she·he·it sees, with an s tacked on. Not much of a surprise perhaps, because it’s a pretty basic fact about English grammar, but still: if you didn’t know it already, you wouldn’t see it coming.

This type of conjugation is exceptional. Most European languages are much more ornate in this department – check out Spanish or Czech, if you want to see more typical examples. The Scandinavian languages, on the other hand, so close to English in several ways, have gone one better. In Danish, for instance, all six forms are identical: the verb se (see) conjugates, or rather doesn’t, as jeg ser, du ser, hun·han ser, vi ser, I ser, de ser.

But if English is strange here, it’s not unique. At least one other European language also has five identical forms and one that’s different, and it’s a language you are not unlikely to have at least some familiarity with: French. Or to be more exact: everyday spoken French.

Written French looks like a typical European language, similar to Spanish and their common ancestor, Latin, with lots of verbal endings. Let’s take the word for ‘see’ again: je vois, tu vois, elle·il voit, nous voyons, vous voyez, elles·ils voient. That’s five different forms; only vois does double duty. But in spoken French, you will typically hear this: /je voi/, /tu voi/, /el·i voi/, /on voi/, /vou voyé/, /el·i voi/. Voilà: only the second person pronoun vous, which is plural, polite or both, commands a different form compared to the other five. Colloquial French, like standard English, has a 5+1 conjugation pattern.

Not always, granted. It isn’t true for all verbs, it’s not always true when the verb is followed by a vowel and even in informal French, the form nous voyons (pronounced /voyon/) can still be used for ‘we see’, alongside on voit (/on voi/). But if you want to summarise what French verbs are like in the present tense (and in the imparfait or past tense as well), ‘5+1’ is a fair approximation. Which is a far cry from what French grammar books would have us believe.

By the way, if you know of another language, European or not, that in its written standard or in some colloquial form has a 5+1 conjugation paradigm (or 6+1, 7+1 et cetera), please do let me know!

Ptime in ptranslation

Both minute and second owe their existence as words to one famous book from Classical Antiquity. Yet their etymologies are a surprising mix, with not only Greek and Latin but also Arabic ingredients. How come?


A 16th-century engraving of Ptolemy

Let’s start with the book: it’s called the Almagest and was written in the second century CE by the mathematician and astronomer Claudius Ptolemy, a Greek in Roman Egypt. In it, he did what scholars had been doing for ages: divide the circle into 360 degrees, each degree into sixty minutes and each minute into sixty seconds.* But ‘minute’ and ‘second’ were not the words he used, for they did not yet exist. What he wrote was ‘first sixtieth’ (prota heksēkosta) and ‘second sixtieth’ (deutera heksēkosta), which in a freer translation might come out as ‘one sixtieth of the first order’ and ‘one sixtieth of the second order’. Continue reading

One (1)

diceIt’s not just the loneliest number, it is also one hell of a numeral: one. Native speakers may disagree, of course – native speakers know everything about there they’re their English except how to spell it – but one holds many surprises for those who try to master the language later in life, such as myself.

What’s so hard about one, you wonder? All the different uses, that’s what, and all the different non-uses as well. Continue reading