THE THREAD.

In the ongoing process of unboxing books, I just ran across one I hadn’t looked at in ages: Philip J. Davis‘s The Thread. Davis is a mathematician known (says Wikipedia) “for his work in numerical analysis and approximation theory,” and in 1963 he published a book, Interpolation and Approximation, which (again according to Wikipedia) is “still an important reference in this area.” The Thread begins with the publication of that book (after much travail, including a printers’ strike and the purchase of the publisher by a bigger publisher) and, after a few years, the receipt of a letter from a Scottish mathematician who praised the book but said:

“…your presentation is flawed by your insistence on spelling Chebyshev‘s name as ‘Tschebyscheff.’ This barbaric, Teutonic, non-standard orthography will gain you no friends. I sincerely hope that when you come to prepare the second edition of your book you will alter this incorrect and irritating spelling. Yours faithfully, John Begg, Professor of Mathematics.”

The rest of the book is a madly digressive attempt to explain why his impulse was to tell the man “to go fry his fish elsewhere”; this involves a brief history of mathematics in general and Russian mathematics in particular, an explanation of how the Cyrillic alphabet came to be and why the name in question “appears in six different spellings,” the Coptic origin of the name Pafnuty, and many other things. If whimsical digression gives you pleasure and you can bear nontechnical discussion of mathematics, you should definitely investigate this little (124-page) book, whose bibliography includes Helen Waddell’s The Desert Fathers, O. R. Kuehene’s A Study of the Thaïs Legend, I. V. Kuznetsova’s Lyudi Russkoi Nauki, Thomas R. Hazard’s The Jonny-Cake Papers, René de Nebesky-Wojkowitz’s Oracles and Demons of Tibet, and the Erinnerungsblätter der Mathematischen Gesellschaft zu Jena (Jena, 1859-1877), inter alia.
Oh, and a fact he never mentions: the name is pronounced che-bi-SHOF. Ah, Russian!

Comments

  1. When I was in college, a certain know-it-all in my engineering mathematics class made himself famous by raising his hand in the middle of the final exam and asking for a table of Chebyshev polynomials.

  2. I think someone at my high school did something like that, but I honestly doubt he knew what he was saying… Also, does the book deal the the mathematics of Russia, or the origins Cryllic? I was a bit confused on the subject of this book.

  3. Both. There is no real “subject,” it’s just following threads of association and telling stories.

  4. Uhm, why did Nikolai Karamzin or Princess Yekaterina Romanovna Vorontsova Dashkova pick the shape E to replace the I-O ligature?

  5. Off topic “The mathematical experience” by Philip Davis and Reuben Hersh is an amusing collection of articles about the cultural context of mathematics. Highly recommended if you know some higher math such as what they teach in engineering schools.

  6. When I emigrated from Russia as a child, I somehow decided to transliterate my name as “Afinogenov” instead of “Afinoguenov.” This error will plague me for the rest of my life–because everyone assumes that the “g” is soft, when it’s actually hard (as the “u” is supposed to indicate, as I learned later). I have met four or five people, ever, who could say it correctly (including the accent on the “e”).
    Oy vey.

  7. Throbert McGee says:

    The spelling “Afinoguenov” would still be problematic — is the gu pronounced as in “guess,” or as in “penguin”?
    To avoid (ahem) ambiguity, a better transliteration would’ve been “Afinoggenov” — no native English speaker would have any confusion about how the double-g is pronounced. (Although they’d probably put the accent on the first “o,” and there’s not much you can do about that.)

  8. Throbert: Aye, but this ratty-looking Jew won’t be a good match for such a Viking name.

  9. Afinogenov has got to be one of the most impressive names I’ve seen, right up there with Amfiteatrov. (They’re both from Greek, the former from Αθηνογένης.)

  10. I think you have a misspelling in your post, that Erinnungsblätter should be Erinnerungsblätter

  11. Quite right, I’ll fix it — thanks!

  12. A bit of Turkic etymology for the name:
    Proto-Turkic: *čepiĺ
    Altaic etymology:
    Meaning: a half-year or 1-year-old kid
    Russian meaning: (полу)годовалый козленок
    Karakhanid: čepiš (MK)
    Turkish: čepiš, čepič
    Uighur: čivič
    Azerbaidzhan: čäpiš
    Turkmen: čebiš
    Halaj: čapiš (

  13. Thanks! Unbegaun doesn’t give an etymology for it, so I had been wondering.

  14. David Marjanović says:

    Uhm, why did Nikolai Karamzin or Princess Yekaterina Romanovna Vorontsova Dashkova pick the shape E to replace the I-O ligature?

    The latter was in use, and still is, for /ju/. /jo/ didn’t exist — except as a recent derivation of /je/. So the shape Ë was chosen, with a diacritic, and then the Russians conspired to leave the diacritic off on every occasion except for transcribing Japanese (and, thankfully, on Wikipedia). Only the Mongolians really use it.

    the name is pronounced che-bi-SHOF.

    Russian does have final devoicing, but /v/ is largely exempted. The traditional transcription of surnames in -ff gives me cramps in my jaw muscles every time I see it.

  15. I thought /u/ had both Y (У) and O-Yѹк) variants, like in Greek, and so /ju/ was I-O-Y, which explains the Ю shape. (Likewise /ja/ I-A -> Я.) Was Е then invented to replace I-E (Ѥ) for /je/? And Ё only added when /jo/ developed phonetically? And so the shape with diacritic has etymological justification? I thought I had read that Е was invented for /jo/ and then Ё tried briefly around WW2 and effectively retired except in childrens’ books and dictionaries since.
    In other words, what is the famous invention of the above articles, as part of the spelling reform or to fill the need in the dictionary, respectively? Ё for /jo/, Е for /je/ (with some developing into /jo/ later), or Е for /jo/?

  16. Maybe Ё was invented to distinguish Е /jo/ from Е /je/? Is that it? And what I read (my Cold War Russian isn’t very good) was about the period in which it was made standard for all works, not just dictionaries.
    Can one predict Е(Ё) /jo/ and Е /je/ solely from the surrounding phonetic environment, that is, without recourse to the lexicon? I didn’t think so.

  17. Back to the etymology, though. The Tatar word is the more likely source (in fact, it was the first to come to mind; I wonder why it is not represented in the Starling database.):
    чебеш (чебешкә, чебеше) и. цыплёнок || цыплячий; сары чеби жёлтый цыплёнок
    http://tatar.org.ru/mod/netpublish/view.php?id=531&section=0&article=26
    4. Фамилии, основы которых восходят к названиям птиц: Чебешев (чебеш – «цыпленок»), Куркин (күркə – «индейка»), Ябалаков (ябалак – «сова») и др.
    http://ruslan.ksu.ru/referat/170806_4.pdf

  18. fond memories of reading this book 10 or 15 years ago… that’s the same kind of scholar i am. i find something weird & track it back. it had never occurred to me before this book that anyone else might find the process interesting.
    m.

  19. David Marjanović says:

    Can one predict Е(Ё) /jo/ and Е /je/ solely from the surrounding phonetic environment, that is, without recourse to the lexicon?

    No. There are (a few) minimal pairs that can only be told apart from context. Still, Ё is always stressed, so if you know where the stress goes (ha!), you can predict it fairly well.

    I thought […] /ju/ was I-O-Y, which explains the Ю shape.

    Correct.

    Was Е then invented to replace I-E (Ѥ) for /je/?

    I think Ѥ was retired when E had itself developed into /je/ in, AFAIK, all Slavic languages except Bulgarian. (Bulgarian for “one” really is /edin/, /edna/, /edno/; compare /jeden/ elsewhere… except in Russian… erm…)

    And Ё only added when /jo/ developed phonetically?

    At least when it had become phonemic.

  20. Russian does have final devoicing, but /v/ is largely exempted.

    Missed this at the time, but: No it’s not.

  21. Likewise /ja/ I-A -> Я.

    In fact, Я is not graphically speaking an iotated A, which took the form Ꙗ and is still used in Church Slavonic. Rather, it is a simplified version of the little yus Ѧ, which originally represented the front nasal vowel of Old Slavonic. The two sounds merged in Russian, so when Peter the Great reformed the orthography he dropped the less common Ꙗ in favor of Я.

    What is unusual about /v/ in Russian is that it is not devoiced after a voiceless consonant: Moskva is not /maskfa/.

    Which reminds me: what is it with Yiddish devoicing? Unlike any variety of German or its Slavic neighbors other than Ukrainian, it maintains a distinction between voiced and voiceless final obstruents. On the other hand, voicing is regressive in consonant clusters (all consonants in the cluster take on the voice of the last consonant rather than the first

  22. What is unusual about /v/ in Russian is that it is not devoiced after a voiceless consonant: Moskva is not /maskfa/.

    Exactly.

  23. David Marjanović says:

    Missed this at the time, but: No it’s not.

    Yeah. It doesn’t necessarily end up as the kind of fortis that I’d ever write ff, but devoiced it is.

    What is unusual about /v/ in Russian is that it is not devoiced after a voiceless consonant: Moskva is not /maskfa/.

    Some Slavic varieties do that – and so do loans into Romanian: Sfîntu Gheorghe “St. George”.

    German doesn’t. The few cases of qu that haven’t become k by hook or by crook are now [kʋ ~ kv] with perfect timing of the voice onset.

    what is it with Yiddish devoicing? Unlike any variety of German

    Ooh.

    I’ve read, in or around Beider’s work, that some Yiddish varieties do actually have final devoicing. (No idea if word-final as in Slavic or syllable-final as in northern German.)

    Some of the German varieties that don’t have voiced obstruents to begin with – basically Upper German and the southern Standard accents – also lack final fortition. I continue to find it quite alien. Here in Berlin, my subway station is a terminal station, so every workday I get to hear Endbahnhof with a loud and clear /t/, and every time my reaction is “where the ducks at?”

    (Ende “end”, Ente “duck”. Also, don’t worry, I’m introverted.)

    Wikipedia/Duden sez that (at the very least) in the Standard accents with voiced obstruents, voice assimilation is always progressive, e.g. [sb̥] in Hausbau. However, in the aspiration-free zone next to the Netherlands, voice assimilation appears to follow the Dutch rules: my colleague from the Eifel pronounces aus Bonn with a fully voiced [zb].

  24. > What is unusual about /v/ in Russian is that it is not devoiced after a voiceless consonant: Moskva is not /maskfa/.

    My little reliable intuition about Russian phonology says that assimilation is consistently regressive, so I’d have expected it to be /mozgva/, if anything.

    > in the Standard accents with voiced obstruents, voice assimilation is always progressive, e.g. [sb̥] in Hausbau.

    There’s no assimilation going in this example, is there? My understanding was that in the Standard, /b/ by itself is already [b̥] (like in Danish).

    The ‘progressive devoicing of /v/’ business made me wonder if there’s a distinction between ‘svære’ (difficult, pl.) and ‘sfære’ (sphere) in Danish. I feel like in clear speech there is, but in practice, maybe not. /sf/ is admittedly highly marginal as an onset.

    (I always have to think before using ‘regressive’/’progressive’ for assimilation, since they mean the opposite of what I find intuitive)

  25. Yes, progressive/regressive is one of the (many) examples of “inexcusably unmemorable terminology for related concepts that have to be sharply distinguished from one another” in this post.

  26. David Marjanović says:

    I find it intuitive – progressive is forwards, from the beginning to the end of the word.

    There’s no assimilation going in this example, is there? My understanding was that in the Standard, /b/ by itself is already [b̥] (like in Danish).

    Depends on the accent. In northern ones, voicing is unreliably present, much like in English. In north-central ones, voicing is reliable, like in Dutch. South of there it’s consistently absent (so that, for me, the most difficult sounds of the entire French language are [b d g], followed by [z ʒ] at some distance).

    What the Duden is really talking about is the stage pronunciation, which voices consistently.

  27. January First-of-May says:

    I find it intuitive – progressive is forwards, from the beginning to the end of the word.

    Same, and I’m not sure how it could possibly make sense the other way.

  28. I find it intuitive – progressive is forwards, from the beginning to the end of the word.

    Presumably all of those pairs were felt to be intuitive by whoever created them. That doesn’t help the rest of us. And I remind those who find them perfectly logical that the human mind does not normally work according to logic, although it can be trained in that direction.

  29. Lars (the original one) says:

    Going forward is going towards the front of the word, that is inherent in the words themselves and you don’t even need to use logic.

  30. Lars (the original one) says:

    (I never thought about it, but of course L frons is not etymologically connected to pro/prae/per, the coincidence arose in Germanic).

  31. Going forward is going towards the front of the word, that is inherent in the words themselves and you don’t even need to use logic.

    If people have trouble with a pair of words, there’s not much point telling them they shouldn’t have such trouble. Compare the nerdview Geoff Pullum is always griping about. (“Customers are complaining because our user interface is confusing.“)

  32. I don’t see the problem with progressive/regressive either, but maybe there’s some confusion similar to that with moving dates back or forward.

    Also, does anyone else find anything unusual about David Marjanović’s use of behind rather than after when referring to the relative positions of sounds in a word (not that he’s done it in this thread)? For some reason using in front of in place of before doesn’t seem as strange in that context.

  33. @Kieth Ivey: Yes, behind is a little bit odd in English, but hinter in German would be more natural with the same meaning. The semantic spaces of prepositions indicating following after (physically or temporally) are a bit different between the two languages. (The difference patterns for what is covered by which preposition come up more commonly with native German speakers using since unidiomatically.)

  34. Thanks, Brett. And apologies to David for calling him out by name like that. It’s just stood out to me for a while as the only non-native-seeming quirk in his writing, and I was wondering if it seemed normal to any other native English speakers.

  35. Yes, those are difficult questions. There supposed to be cultures that consider the past as in front of them and the future as being behind. Also, if you are facing the aft then which direction for you will be “forward”?

  36. David Marjanović says:

    Thanks – I’m actually never sure about this. It was once brought up in a LLog thread, where seemingly native speakers ended up confused, too…

    There supposed to be cultures that consider the past as in front of them and the future as being behind.

    Oh yes. People speaking e.g. Aymara will even gesture behind them when talking about the future, and in front of them when talking about the past. To them, the past is in front of you where you can see it, and the future comes at you from behind.

    It’s actually strange that for most other people time is static in the metaphor, and you walk forward in it toward the future.

  37. Bathrobe says:

    English is not exactly clear cut.

    “The future lies before us”.

    “That was before, this is now”.

  38. In some languages, future is a variety of irrealis. I can see how a language would use ‘behind’ as a metaphor for invisible/irrealis/future, and vice versa. I have no idea if any language does that, though.

  39. January First-of-May says:

    English is not exactly clear cut.

    In Russian, as well, затем “after that” is literally за тем “behind that”, and in some contexts за alone could refer to the future.

    I want to say that the metaphor is a queue, but I think the word is too old for that. Even so, I suspect something along the lines of “one who is behind arrives later”.

  40. Tim May says:

    I think that in general, English works as if events are a procession or caravan travelling in a direction opposite to the orientation of the observer.

  41. Lars (the original one) says:

    not much point telling — note that I was claiming that the obvious sense was the opposite of the one in common use. I was not really serious, except in pointing out that the common meaning is the result of an arbitrary choice.

  42. John Cowan says:

    the only non-native-seeming quirk in his writing

    I don’t know if “approximately nobody” counts as a non-native quirk or just a personal quirk, but I find it charming. David has used it only six times (and me once) per Google, but it somehow seems more frequent.

  43. I would call it a personal quirk; I always enjoy seeing it, but it never strikes me as something a native speaker wouldn’t say.

  44. dainichi says:

    > I find it intuitive – progressive is forwards, from the beginning to the end of the word.

    I think I consider pro- and pre- synonyms of ‘front’, you know, the end of the words where I put my prefixes and prepositions.

    But more than that I think my intuition is caused by contamination from the political meaning of ‘progressive’. Anticipating the way of the future feels ‘progressive’, while following the way of the past feels ‘regressive’.

  45. Bathrobe says:

    Except in taxation.

  46. I think “ungefähr niemand” sounds as quirky in German as “approximately nobody” does in English.

  47. David Marjanović says:

    Even more so. I’ve never encountered it – but I definitely haven’t invented approximately nobody.

  48. It comes from treating nobody playfully as a round number (10, 50, 100, etc). Normally it’s treated as an exact number (1, 2,3 7,9 and such)..

  49. Stu Clayton says:

    “Approximately nobody” can be regarded as a jocular variant of “almost nobody”, which is as unremarkable as an idiomatic expression can be. “When I arrived, there was almost nobody in the bar” = “… the bar was almost empty”.

    The same applies to ungefähr niemand and fast niemand / fast keiner. “Als ich ankam, war fast niemand / fast keiner in der Kneipe” = “… war die Kneipe fast leer”.

    Compare and contrast: “hardly anyone”, “pretty much no one”. “kaum jemand / kaum einer”, “so ziemlich niemand/keiner”.

  50. David Marjanović says:

    treating nobody playfully as a round number

    No. It misleads the hearer/reader into expecting a round number; then comes a dramatic pause or shift in intonation, and then an exact number (0) is revealed.

  51. @Stu Clayton: I interpret “almost nobody” and “approximately nobody” differently. With the former, it seems to imply that there is somebody, but the number of people involved is too small to be worth considering. However, with “approximately nobody” there could, in fact, be zero people; zero is not guaranteed but allowed. Thus, “approximately nobody” encompasses both “almost nobody” and true “nobody.”

  52. “You saw nobody? And at that distance. You must have good eyesight!

  53. Stu Clayton says:

    @Brett: yes, “approximately nobody” is a jocular variant, the humor being that of the mathematicially inclined. “Almost nobody” itself is apt to make a philosopher smirk. Even specialists are only human.

  54. Bathrobe says:

    For me, “approximately nobody” means “nobody”. Not one person, not two people; nobody. It’s meant to be funny, as if you had to count to get to the conclusion that no one was there.

    “Almost nobody” means one or two, maybe even more, depending on your criteria.

    Totally different.

  55. January First-of-May says:

    For me, “almost nobody” means “relatively few, but at least one or two, and probably more”, and “approximately nobody” means “relatively few, and very possibly none, but I’m not confident of that, and there might be one or two I actually happen to know about”.

    (Or something along those lines, anyway. Notably, if there’s (suspected to be) actually nobody, the latter phrase can be used but not the former.)
    (In other words, basically what Brett said.)

    Random silly example: almost nobody in Ireland speaks Irish, approximately nobody in Ireland speaks Breton.

  56. John Cowan says:

    There must be somebody in Austria who thinks the country is the descendant of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to take one of David’s examples.

  57. David Marjanović says:

    I saw a monarchist bumper sticker in the early 1990s. (“1918–1988 – 70 years of interregnum are enough!”)

    That mindset and anything close to it has probably literally died out since then.

  58. Breffni says:

    It’s meant to be funny, as if you had to count to get to the conclusion that no one was there

    ‘Ford’, he said, ‘how many escape capsules are there?’
    ‘None’, said Ford.
    Zaphod gibbered.
    ‘Did you count them?’ he yelled.
    ‘Twice’

    – The Restaurant at the End of the Universe

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