Chci pivo

When you travel to a foreign country, I imagine you learn a few words of the language before you go. Some people take this very seriously, and spend months or years preparing, others may learn one or two words. The latter are more interesting, because the interesting question is, what do you learn in order to maximise your enjoyment and minimise your effort? It didn’t take me long to discover that the most important word to learn in any language is the word for beer. And the next most important word to learn is two. If you know those words, the locals will teach you everything else you need to know.

The first time I stayed in Prague (not my first stay in Czechoslovakia), on a hot summer’s day in Hradcany, I went to go into a pub, to find my way barred by a large man who asked me “Co chces?” Since I had by that time learnt a few more words of Czech, I immediately replied “chci pivo”, which seemed to be an acceptable answer, so he let me in. I flatter myself that my musical ear had given me a reasonably good pronunciation of the word “chci”, which to an English speaker is almost unpronounceable. So he probably assumed I was Czech. He soon learnt his mistake, but did not seem to regret it. In any case, it would probably have been enough if I had just said “pivo”. The word “pivo” is, as you undoubtedly know, the word for beer in most (but not all) Slavonic languages, but literally it simply means “a drink”. I suppose that goes back to the time that, in much of the world, it was not safe to drink water, and only beer was safe to drink. Thus water is for washing, and beer is for drinking.

In Finland, “olut” is, surprising as it may seem, cognate to the English word “ale”, borrowed from Swedish, and still useful in North-Western parts of Russia such as Karelia (historically Finnish) and St Petersburg, where I found it more useful to be able to count in Finnish than in Russian. In Korea, I learnt the word for beer is mekju, and the word for rice wine is soju, and then I discovered that if you want an alcoholic drink, they all end in -ju. Now that is what I call a well-designed language!

Written Korean is no less amazing. It looks like Chinese, and you imagine it is equally difficult to read. Not a bit of it. It was designed by King Sejong the Great to be a democratic writing system to destroy the power of the Chinese elite, since you can learn to read it in one day instead of ten years. And I can testify that it works: you can learn it in one day. That is because it is an alphabet, as used by all peoples west of China for thousands of years.

Written Chinese, on the other hand, is more like physics. You have to spend many years learning all the epicycles for every different word, after which you find there is a deliberate ambiguity in everything that is written, which is great for literature (especially poetry), but not so great for science. King Sejong would cut through all this nonsense, and insist on complete clarity and simplicity. So would anyone else with any sense. Why does mathematical physics still get away with writing in Chinese characters that are (a) illegible, (b) ambiguous, (c) incomprehensible, and (d) meaningless?

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3 Responses to “Chci pivo”

  1. Robert A. Wilson Says:

    In case it wasn’t clear enough, I should point out that you actually have to use the words for “two” and “beer” – together.

  2. Robert A. Wilson Says:

    In Korean, there are ten vowels: neutron, proton, electron, muon and tau, each in a spin up and spin down version. The consonants are (quite literally) a picture of your tongue (seen from the left) while you are pronouncing them. The plosives come in three colours (plain, aspirated and tense, but in physics they are called red, green and blue), but only four flavours (Bottom, Top and CHarm are pronounced as you would expect, but strange is pronounced Queer) – the other two flavours are nasals (up) and fricatives (down). That leaves only the three neutrinos (approximants and liquids). And if you can’t tell the difference between a Korean l and a Korean r, that’s just neutrino oscillation.

    So, as I said, if you want to understand particle physics, stop trying to learn Chinese. Write it in Korean and it all becomes clear.

  3. Robert A. Wilson Says:

    In my experience, the most difficult Czech word to pronounce is the word for four – ctyri – so if you want to buy four beers, I recommend that you buy two – and then another two. Or use sign language.

    This reminds me of the story my father told me about a tailor’s apprentice being sent to buy a tailor’s goose – or rather, two. Not knowing whether a tailor’s goose follows the same grammatical rules as a zoological goose, he didn’t know whether to ask for geese or gooses – so asked for one, and then another.

    My father’s father was a tailor for much of the first half of the 20th century, and made me a beautiful little blue coat when I was three. My little brother’s coat was green, and if we’d had a baby sister, she would undoubtedly have got a red riding-coat and been called Little Red Riding Hood by everyone. But the colours are unobservable in the old black-and-white photos, and in quantum chromodynamics for that matter.

    My father never told me the grammatical rules for a tailor’s goose, which makes me wonder if he might himself have been a (thinly disguised) protagonist in the story.

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