Art Pact 217 - Happiness in Numbers


The people on that planet had a curious attitude towards maths, which stemmed from their language. Their ancestors had been one of the third wave out of the homeworld, the grand and forgotten wave, and like so many of the other ships in that ill-fortuned expedition, they had become lost in the great space-time ripple that came unexplained out of the Antlia Dwarf Galaxy and washed across the Milky Way like a tidal wave, scattering warp ships before it like so many pond-skaters. Unlike many of the ships that had been lost forever, their ancestor's had survived with little damage, flung out of the warp at a low speed because of a routine balancing manoeuvre it had been in the middle of at the time. It came out in the middle of nowhere, engines wrecked for anything other than short-distance travel, but as luck would have it the science crew detected a system a mere twenty light-years away, a system they were able to limp to over the next three decades.

The star was attended by three planets - two gas giants and the one I had landed on, a rocky place just big enough to provide half a standard gravity, with an atmosphere thick enough to breath outside if you did nothing more strenuous than standing still. In the villages and fields loose densifier fields packed the air into a more useful thickness. It had the strange property of being lower in nitrogen than standard air, a shortfall which was made up by helium that constantly seeped out of deep underground reservoirs that must have been opened up in the planet's last few tens of thousands of years, for they were still leaking prodigiously and had not yet vented their contents into outer space. The air thus fortified transmitted sound just slightly faster, causing my voice to raise by a semi-tone whenever I came out of my ship to talk to the locals. On each occasion I quickly grew accustomed to the effect, but the acclimatisation wore off almost the instant I returned to my quarters, so that for the first few minutes of each day I sounded consistently slightly off to myself, the effect so strong that I sometimes felt that the words I was hearing had been spoken by someone else.

The language of those people, which had once been the standard tongue, was barely intelligible to me upon arrival, and only after an exhaustive analysis by my ship's computer could I begin to pick up the changes which made it easier for me to understand. They still had archive materials stripped from their own lander, and they could had they wanted have kept their language attendant to old patterns. But during the five-hundred year gap between their arrival and mine someone had made the decision - perhaps deliberately - not to put the brakes on to the natural slippages that language is prone to in practise. Their dialect had therefore slowly begun to move away from its root, undergoing a vowel shift backwards into the mouth (perhaps some attempt to compensate for the effects of the planet's atmosphere), and in commonly used words (but not rarer ones) a fairly consistent consonant shuffle. Furthermore there were grammatical changes, such as an unusual system of gendered pronoun-to-adverb matchings in which adverbs were split into two classes and the correct pronoun had to be used, but only when an adverb was attached to the sentence. For example, to say that someone ran you could simply say "Fa tid cor" (He/She did run), but to say they ran quickly (quickly being a class A - or female, as I thought of it - adverb), you had to change the pronoun Fa to Fal: "Fal tid kikle cor". Awkwardly was in the other gender (class B, or male): "Fana tid ekardle cor". No conjugation or agreement was required for verbs themselves, or for prepositions, or for normal verbs, and I found it so hard to remember that I must frequently have made mistakes. My hosts were tolerant of mistakes, however, and since it was only a slight redundancy in the language I suppose that no information was lost. I noted it chiefly because of its uniqueness (as far as I am concerned, having heard of no similar system), and because it rendered the formation of certain sentences impossible (for instance one could not say "She ran quickly and smoothly", because quickly and smoothly were of different classes and the pronoun could not be conjugated to agree with both of them at once).

The most unusual feature though, was that of their maths. The numbers four and seven ("Var" and "Esef") were the same as the words for fear and happy. They therefore took great pains, where possible, to make their calculations in such a way that the intermediate steps used no fours and as many sevens as possible. This they did with great facility, to which I can do little justice. For an example, though, if a teacher wanted a schoolchild to calculate (22 x 2) + 3, they would break it down into intermediate steps first, such that the step (44) + 3 was written as (37 + 7) + 3. They would also fiddle simple sums, adding on fudge factors so that trades never involved the number 4, and no parent ever referred to their child as "four years old", instead saying "Mos de te" (older than three).

They were realists, of course - where the outcome and final result of a sum involved the number four. and that outcome fed into some physical process, they accepted the result. But they considered such sums inauspicious, and if (for example) a densifier field had to be tuned to 84 micrometers in order to work optimally over a crop field, the farmers working those fields would shake their heads each morning as they worked, bemoaning the unhappy necessity of such an act. The technician responsible for the tuning would be given no other work for a day afterwards, so that the bad karma he had accumulated be given time to dissipate harmlessly without contaminating other machines.

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