Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Happy Christian Passover

There are a number of words that don’t translate literally from French to English. The word for seventy, for instance, translates as sixty ten, eighty translates as four twenties, and ninety translates as four twenties and ten. It seems like a small concession to make in order to maintain the poetry of the language, until you have to discuss an event that occurred between the years of 1969 and 2000. I’ve never gotten a good answer as to why the numbers for seventy through ninety-nine simply don't exist in French.

“It’s just like that,” my instructors will say, or “it’s leftover from Latin.”

Leave it to Wikipedia to give me a more satisfying answer. According to this entry, the French counting system is partially vigesimal, meaning it is based on counting in twenties. This habit was officially sanctioned after the French Revolution to unify different counting systems across the country. At the time there were a number of different languages spoken in France, including Breton, which was highly influenced by Celtic – a language with a counting system similar to the archaic English use of score, as in fourscore and seven to mean 87, or threescore and ten to mean 70.

Oh sure, there are words that make more sense in French; for instance the letter W is called double V instead of the English double U, but what about the use of green lemon as the word for lime, and more importantly - why is the French word for Passover “Jewish Easter”?

Apparently the same is true in many languages, and a cursory Google search reveals that the Hebrew word for Passover is pesach; when this word was adopted into Greek it remained unchanged, as well as in languages like Italian, Dutch and French. Once Christianity began to spread, there were seemingly no efforts made to distinguish Passover from Easter linguistically.

I’m no scholar on the subject, but it seems to me that if tonight marks the first night of Jewish Easter, then on Sunday there will be marked increases in church attendance as legions of believers observe Christian Passover.

So... Happy Jewish Easter to some of you, Happy Christian Passover to others, and to all of you I wish a very Happy Day-After-Easter-Half-Price-Candy-Shopping. I’ll be in the bargain aisle at Walgreen’s if you're looking for me.


Anonymous said...

Language is a window to culture. I had wondered about the curious French number fun; thanks for clearing it up!

Ramadan = Muslim Lent
Tet = Vietnamese Pearl Harbor
Songkran = Buddhist Chuck Water Balloons at Fancy People Day

MJ said...

I had to laugh. While I went a slightly different direction, I also riddled me this on the Passover/Easter combo. Your take was yet another 8 ball facet. Thanks!