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Column: What’s in a name?

20 December 2019

A Physics Today editor’s recent vacation got her thinking about the importance of having the right words.

University of Ljubljana math and physics exhibition.
The University of Ljubljana’s faculty of mathematics and physics commemorated the Slovenian school’s centennial with a photo exhibition. Credit: Johanna L. Miller

You could never mistake me for a linguist. Like too many Americans, I’m conversant only in English, with a smattering of German half-remembered from high school and just enough Italian to order a gelato. I’ve never had to train myself to think entirely in another language, and I’ve never directly experienced the difficulties that can sometimes arise from languages’ differing capacities to name and distinguish certain concepts.

So when I stopped in Ljubljana, Slovenia, for a few days on my vacation last month, I was fascinated by our tour guide Helena’s account of her time growing up as a native Slovene speaker. Slovene, I learned, has several characteristics that make it unusual among modern languages. Among them, its nouns adopt not only singular and plural grammatical forms but also a dual form for talking about exactly two of something.

Miller's Diary logo.

Miller’s Diary

Physics Today editor Johanna Miller reflects on the latest Search & Discovery section of the magazine, the editorial process, and life in general.

Many other languages reserve a few special words for referring to things in twos. In English, for example, we have words like both, either, and neither, as opposed to all, any, and none. Sometimes those words are vestiges of a more complete dual the language used to have. Over time, though, most languages have come to treat the ideas of “two” and “three or more” as close enough to take most of the same word forms.

Slovene, meanwhile, has kept them wholly separate: It treats “two” and “three” not just as different numbers but as fundamentally different concepts. So when native Slovene speakers start learning English and other languages in school, they may initially hear the English plural (meaning two or more) and mentally picture the Slovene plural (three or more).

As Helena noted, that linguistic difference can lead to the impression that Americans do everything in groups. And it makes for some interesting interpretations of English-language love songs.

Slovene speakers once had a different educational experience. For centuries most of what is now Slovenia was part of the Austrian Empire, and all education was conducted in German; the Slovene language survived only as the language people spoke at home. (The region enjoyed a brief respite—if you can call it that—under Napoleon, who for a few years allowed schools to be run in the local language. Perhaps as a result, there are more monuments to Napoleon in Ljubljana than you might expect anywhere outside Paris.) But at the end of World War I, Austria’s empire, including Slovenia, became part of the newly established Kingdom of Yugoslavia. The University of Ljubljana opened in 1919 and held its first Slovene-language lectures in December of that year.

Festivities to mark the university’s 100th anniversary were in evidence all around the city during our visit. I don’t usually seek out physics-related activities when I’m on vacation, but entirely by accident, while strolling through a local park, I came across an installation of research-related pictures from the university’s faculty of mathematics and physics. You can see one of the images below; others are here, here, and in my photo above. There were dozens of them, and they were all stunning.

Quasicrystalline vitrail.
A quasicrystalline tiling that looks a bit like a church window. Credit: Antonio Šiber

Each image was captioned in both Slovene and English. I couldn’t tell you what any of the Slovene said, but the English captions were impressively precise and concise. To achieve that combination, though, they made heavy use of what I think of as the “physics vernacular”: Terms like quasicrystal, eigenvalue, and muon were thrown around without much explanation. I got the gist of almost all of them. But to my nonscientist travel partner, they might as well have been in Greek.

If you count the physics vernacular as a language unto itself, as it sometimes seems to be, then it doesn’t readily translate into any other. Try explaining to someone who’s never heard of a positron what an electron–positron collider is for. It’s not impossible; many science communicators who write for the general public do an admirable job of it. But it’s a whole lot easier to write about science, as Physics Today does, for an audience that already has a shared understanding and shared set of names for at least some of the concepts involved.

Another stop on our itinerary—Verona, Italy—illustrates well the power of a name. Verona is on the tourist map for several reasons. Its central square, for example, features an unusually well-preserved Roman arena that’s been in near-continuous use since antiquity. (Today it hosts opera performances, not gladiator fights.) But most heavily promoted are the Romeo and Juliet attractions—the houses and tombs where the fictional star-crossed lovers supposedly lived and died. It’s all made up, of course. What’s presented as Juliet’s famous balcony is really an old sarcophagus that was attached to an upstairs window in the 1930s. Nevertheless, the visitors keep coming.

Whether or not a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, I doubt that “an otherwise unremarkable house with a sarcophagus stuck to the window” would ring as sweetly in travelers’ ears as “Casa di Giulietta.”

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