Johnson

The riddle of the cucumbers

A tantalising book of puzzles that doubles as an introduction to linguistics

 


 

Oct 31st 2020 | words 817

 

 

 

YOU HAVE a candle, a box of matches and some tacks. How do you affix the candle to the wall so the wax wont drip on a table below? It is a classic problem first devised in the 1930s. Most people struggle with it. The easiest solution: pour out the matches, and use the tacks and part of the matchbox to make a little shelf, which the candle can sit on. The reason people struggle is fixedness: the association of candles with the matches themselves is so strong as to blot out the container. The idea that the box is more important simply doesnt occur.

 

Now consider this problem, derived from these Japanese phrases: boru niko (two balls), tsuna nihon (two ropes), uma nito (two horses), kami nimai (two sheets of paper), ashi gohon (five legs), ringo goko (five apples), sara gomai (five plates) and kaba goto (five hippos). How do you say nine cucumbers? Kyuri kyuhon, kyuri kyuko, kyuri kyuhiki or kyuri kyuto?

 

If that fires you up, you are probably not only a language-lover but a puzzle-solver, with the type of intellect that thrills not only to cryptic crosswords but to sudoku or brainteasers like the matchbox riddle. And Alex Bellos, who has the delightful job of puzzle columnist at the Guardian, has a book for you: The Language Lovers Puzzle Book. It begins with the Japanese conundrum above (a hint at the answer is at the end of this column), and takes readers through a host of linguistic games that will stretch their minds in ways most were not aware they could be stretched.

 

Mr Bellos was inspired by the Linguistics Olympiad, a competition for students that gives them problems like the Japanese one. It requires no knowledge of Japanese; questions are intentionally drawn from languages that the contestants wont know. The point is to piece together the answer using barely sufficient evidence, some common sense and some uncommon reasoning.

 

Uncommon, at least, to non-speakers of the languages involved. Languages pay attention to different things: a famous formulation of this idea, by Roman Jakobson, a Russian-American linguist, is that languages differ not in what they can say, but what they must. English-speakers take note of the distinction between a man and the man, which many languages could not care less about; when others learn English they have to force themselves to grapple with details that seem to them trivial. Mr Belloss book is not just a puzzle collection, but an introduction to the science of distilling regularities from the weird ways in which languages behave.

 

History buffs will enjoy a chapter that focuses on decoding ancient tongues. Some of the challenges are just simple enough to impart a sense of confidence (such as matching runic inscriptions to Norse words and the names of gods). Some are so hard as to inspire awe for those who cracked them, like the deciphering of a passage of Old Persian in cuneiform script, starting with impossibly little information. Mr Bellos provides short narratives about such feats, and how they in turn inspired othersin this case, the interpretation of cuneiform writings from Babylon and Sumer.

 

Along the way, the seemingly exotic becomes familiar. In a simplified but realistic example, readers can reconstruct proto-Germanic, spoken 2,000 years ago but never written down, by figuring out patterns of difference in the daughter languages of German, Icelandic and English. Suddenly Icelandic looks like Englishs cousin, which it is. But the familiar also becomes exotic. The Tok Pisin creole of Papua New Guinea may be based on English, but few will guess that gras bilong dok is the grass that belongs to the dog, or fur.

 

Many people think academic linguistics is either something to do with working out correct grammar (it isnt), or with learning to speak a dozen languages (most linguists do not). It is really about the kind of problem-solving that can help a field linguist translate an isolated unknown language, a historical linguist reconstruct a never-written tongue, or a computational linguist code a computerised translation system. Many beginners, after the buzz of Mr Belloss puzzles, may also fall in love with the joys of this misunderstood discipline.

 

About those Japanese cucumbers. Unless you know a language that behaves similarly, like Chinese, you may not have thought to consider the shape of the objects being counted. In Japanese this is integrated into the numbers themselves. Once youve found the solution, and those to many other comparable problems, it will become second nature to think outside the matchbox.

 

 

 










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Economist | The riddle of the cucumbers

 

 

 

Johnson

The riddle of the cucumbers

A tantalising book of puzzles that doubles as an introduction to linguistics

 


 

Oct 31st 2020 | words 817

 

 

 

YOU HAVE a candle, a box of matches and some tacks. How do you affix the candle to the wall so the wax wont drip on a table below? It is a classic problem first devised in the 1930s. Most people struggle with it. The easiest solution: pour out the matches, and use the tacks and part of the matchbox to make a little shelf, which the candle can sit on. The reason people struggle is fixedness: the association of candles with the matches themselves is so strong as to blot out the container. The idea that the box is more important simply doesnt occur.

 

Now consider this problem, derived from these Japanese phrases: boru niko (two balls), tsuna nihon (two ropes), uma nito (two horses), kami nimai (two sheets of paper), ashi gohon (five legs), ringo goko (five apples), sara gomai (five plates) and kaba goto (five hippos). How do you say nine cucumbers? Kyuri kyuhon, kyuri kyuko, kyuri kyuhiki or kyuri kyuto?

 

If that fires you up, you are probably not only a language-lover but a puzzle-solver, with the type of intellect that thrills not only to cryptic crosswords but to sudoku or brainteasers like the matchbox riddle. And Alex Bellos, who has the delightful job of puzzle columnist at the Guardian, has a book for you: The Language Lovers Puzzle Book. It begins with the Japanese conundrum above (a hint at the answer is at the end of this column), and takes readers through a host of linguistic games that will stretch their minds in ways most were not aware they could be stretched.

 

Mr Bellos was inspired by the Linguistics Olympiad, a competition for students that gives them problems like the Japanese one. It requires no knowledge of Japanese; questions are intentionally drawn from languages that the contestants wont know. The point is to piece together the answer using barely sufficient evidence, some common sense and some uncommon reasoning.

 

Uncommon, at least, to non-speakers of the languages involved. Languages pay attention to different things: a famous formulation of this idea, by Roman Jakobson, a Russian-American linguist, is that languages differ not in what they can say, but what they must. English-speakers take note of the distinction between a man and the man, which many languages could not care less about; when others learn English they have to force themselves to grapple with details that seem to them trivial. Mr Belloss book is not just a puzzle collection, but an introduction to the science of distilling regularities from the weird ways in which languages behave.

 

History buffs will enjoy a chapter that focuses on decoding ancient tongues. Some of the challenges are just simple enough to impart a sense of confidence (such as matching runic inscriptions to Norse words and the names of gods). Some are so hard as to inspire awe for those who cracked them, like the deciphering of a passage of Old Persian in cuneiform script, starting with impossibly little information. Mr Bellos provides short narratives about such feats, and how they in turn inspired othersin this case, the interpretation of cuneiform writings from Babylon and Sumer.

 

Along the way, the seemingly exotic becomes familiar. In a simplified but realistic example, readers can reconstruct proto-Germanic, spoken 2,000 years ago but never written down, by figuring out patterns of difference in the daughter languages of German, Icelandic and English. Suddenly Icelandic looks like Englishs cousin, which it is. But the familiar also becomes exotic. The Tok Pisin creole of Papua New Guinea may be based on English, but few will guess that gras bilong dok is the grass that belongs to the dog, or fur.

 

Many people think academic linguistics is either something to do with working out correct grammar (it isnt), or with learning to speak a dozen languages (most linguists do not). It is really about the kind of problem-solving that can help a field linguist translate an isolated unknown language, a historical linguist reconstruct a never-written tongue, or a computational linguist code a computerised translation system. Many beginners, after the buzz of Mr Belloss puzzles, may also fall in love with the joys of this misunderstood discipline.

 

About those Japanese cucumbers. Unless you know a language that behaves similarly, like Chinese, you may not have thought to consider the shape of the objects being counted. In Japanese this is integrated into the numbers themselves. Once youve found the solution, and those to many other comparable problems, it will become second nature to think outside the matchbox.

 

 

 










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