Where Are the Tort Reformers When You Need Them?

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Where Are the Tort Reformers When You Need Them?

I mean, seriously, folks, get a life.

One note about the number thing. Yeah, French numbers are a bit strange: 94 is quatre-vingts quatorze, or literally "four-twenties fourteen." Japanese numbers, which follow the traditional Chinese system, are just like our numbers except that large numbers are grouped by 104n rather than 103n. In other words, we have ones, tens, and hudreds, then we start over with thousands, tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands, then millions, tens of millions, and hundreds of millions, and so on; but Japanese uses ones, tens, and thousands, then man (ten thousands), tens of man, hundreds of man, and thousands of man, then oku (hundred millions), tens of oku, hundreds of oku, and thousands of oku, and so on. For example, 500,000 is fifty man. Considering that a yen is worth about one cent, you often need to use big numbers in Japanese, and I found it pretty difficult sometimes when I was living in Japan to make sure I was in the right order of magnitude.

But, as the article points out, the really tricky thing about Japanese numbers is that you need to know which class of things an item belongs to in order to know what words to use when counting it. For instance, if you're counting flat things, you use -mai; if you want to say you have two tickets to a movie, you say you have ni-mai-no kippu ("two flat things of tickets"). For long, basically cylindrical objects (get your minds out of the gutter!), you use -hon, e.g., ni-hon no biiru ("two cylindrical things of beers"). It's not always obvious which category something belongs in, one of my favorites being that neckties go in the -hon category. My favorite category is -hiki, for small animals: to count cats, you say ippiki, nihiki, sambiki, yonhiki, gohiki, etc. Big animals get another category, which IIRC is -dai--a counter that is also used for large machinery. I remember some of my very well-educated English students in Japan debating what the right counter was for rabbits. People get their own word, but that one changes above two people, so if you're counting firemen, you say hitori, futari, sannin, yonnin, gonin, etc.

Meanwhile, my linguistic efforts have now turned away from remembering how to count rabbits in Japanese to how to tell time in Dutch. Q: What time is it if a Dutchman says it's "ten for half ten?" A: 9:20.

In other words, we're all screwed up in our own way. The Tower of Babel must have been a hell of a thing.

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