National Palindrome Week

By John Hertz: In the United States a date is often written as Our Gracious Host does.  For example, September 17, 2019 is often written 9/17/19.

If you allow adjustments to punctuation “9/17/19” backwards is “9/17/19” – the same as forwards: a palindrome.

English is an alphabetical language.  We can have palindromes like “Able was I ere I saw Elba” which Napoleon 1769-1821 could have said (it seems to have appeared in 1848), or “A man, a plan, a canal: Panama!” for Theodore Roosevelt 1858-1919 (coined by Leigh Mercer 1893-1977).

Incidentally, 2019 is the centenary of TR’s death.

If English were an ideographic language, where a character is a word (we do that with Arabic numerals: “2” is “two”), we could read “You ain’t seen nothing yet” backwards as “So far nothing ever seen matches you.”

Opinions vary over whether a palindrome must have the same meaning read backward and forward, or may have different – perhaps comically different – meanings.

Chinese is an ideographic language.  Its grammar is flexible, or powerful, or something: for example, there are no nouns or verbs, which we sometimes manage with “He laid a knife on the table” and “I’ll knife you.”  It’s great for poetry.

Su Hui, a Chinese woman of seventeen hundred years ago (I give her name in Chinese style, “Su” the family name, “Hui” the personal name), made a poem of 112 characters, or some say 841.  One story says she embroidered them in a circle.

A thousand years later her poem was known as a grid of 29 x 29 characters that could be read forward, backward, horizontally, vertically, diagonally, or in sub-grids, three thousand ways – some say eight thousand.  This note includes translation by David Hinton (1954-  ).

And here’s a note on Hsiung Yin-tso and his Chinese Palindrome Poems of Four Seasons (1978).

Do geese see God?

13 thoughts on “National Palindrome Week

  1. @Rod
    And also adjectives and adverbs – but they may be hard to recognize. What it doesn’t seem to have are conjugations and declensions.

  2. A teacher of mine described Mandarin as a condensed, telegraphic language where you had to ‘pre-understand’ what was being talked about in order to understand what was being talked about. Otherwise, to borrow from Stephen Leacock, a sentence could ride madly off in all directions.

  3. Are there any human languages without nouns and verbs? It seem unlikely to me, but I am only an interested observer of linguistics.

  4. Are there any human languages without nouns and verbs? (Nancy Sauer)

    It would be an interesting experiment, when creating a secondary fantasy or science fiction world, to try and write one. Creatively, flowing, inky readable story-like.
    Is just adding ‘like’ to a noun cheating?

  5. @Nancy Sauer: Lojban claims, if I understand it, not to have nouns or verbs, but instead one morphodite word class that do nouny things when used this way and very things when used that way. I consider that to mean it has nouns and verbs and that, as in English, all nouns can be verbed if it’s grokkable to do so.

  6. Swedish adds to language delight by being a wordcompounding language that occasionally uses both pitch accent and stress to disambiguate when spoken. (yes, I know there should’ve been a “-” between the two compunded words, I chose to ignore it to illustrate the concept).

    The Swedish for “slackline walker” (‘lindansare’) is also the Swedish word (but, when pronounced, stressed differenly) for a “linden arborist” (a ‘lindansare’). The first word is a compounding of ‘lina’ (“line”) and ‘dansare’ (“dancer”). The second of ‘lind’ (“linden”) and ‘ansare’ (“someone who prunes”).

    And then, of course, in written swedish, while everyone would expect “&aringklagare” to be a prosecutor, it could, by shifting stress, be someone who complains abourt rivers, or someone who repairs vehicles (alhtough the latter would be border-line slangy).

    But not many languages managed the palindrominity of the Finnish word “saippuakauppias” (‘soap merchant’; for pronounciation, all letters are short, except the double-signed “p”, which signifies a “long p”).

  7. If you don’t write dates the American way, but use the format most other countries do, then the palindromic date is the 9th of October – 9/10/2019.
    I have always found it disappointing that the word palindrome is not itself palindromic.

    @Kevin Harkness
    The problem with doing away with verbs and nouns is the adjectives and adverbs have to go too; they simply modify nouns and verbs. This basically leaves conjunctions such as “and” or “but”.
    Human languages work by building a scene up using its constituent items (nouns and adjectives) and their actions (verbs and adverbs). For example: “a red car is moving slowly along a road”. If we are shown a film of the same thing we take in the whole thing and extract the elements: the car, the fact that it is moving and the road. I don’t see why it shouldn’t be possible to have a language that worked like a film. It would, however, be extremely alien and I wouldn’t have the faintest idea how to even begin to construct such a language.

  8. @ Stuart Hall: I don’t know of many countries using “day / month / year”, but I do know quite a few using Y-M-D, which is kinda sad, because that means it’ll be a few years until the next palindromic date (2021-12-02, ignoring separators).

  9. “The problem with doing away with verbs and nouns is the adjectives and adverbs have to go too; they simply modify nouns and verbs” (Stuart Hall)

    Not sure I agree, though it would take imagination, deduction, and luck to figure out the lacunae. I still think it would be an interesting experiment. Two of my favourite SFF stories have hard to decipher languages: Darmok from ST:TNG and the aliens in “The Lathe of Heaven” by Ursula K. Le Guin.

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