In English there is considerable confusion regarding the proper pronunciation of the word “yogurt.” Basically, “yog-urt” is the UK pronunciation whereas Americans say “yo-gurt.”

Meanwhile, the French say “yaourt” and this is also how they spell it. That is, the French don’t pronounce the “g.” Weird, right?

Well, as it turns out, the French pronunciation is the most accurate. The word is originally Turkish, yoğurt, from yoğurmak, meaning “to kneed,” “to become curdled or coagulated.” As a people of the Central Asian steppes, the Turks ate a lot of milk products and they do so to this day. In fact, their yoğurt is phenomenally delicious and it contains none of the weird emulsifiers and sickening sweeteners that one finds elsewhere.

So why do the French swallow the “g”? Well, because the Turks do. The letter “ğ” — yumuşak ge, a “g” with a squiggle — is not pronounced in Turkish but it only extends the length of the previous vowel. The French must have met actual Turkish people and learned the pronunciation from them. English, Americans and Swedes must only have seen it written and they consequently mispronounce the word to this day.

This is how to pronounce it correctly —

The number system which the world uses today originated in India in the first centuries CE. The numbers are usually referred to as “Arabic” since the Europeans obtained them from the Arabs, but in the Middle East they are known as “Indian” since the Arabs obtained them from India. Mathematics emerged as a separate field of study already in Vedic times but it was in the Gupta period that the greatest advances were made. Indians learned from Greek mathematicians but they made seminal contributions of their own. They were the first to make use of decimals and the number zero. They used negative numbers too and they beat Pythagoras to his famous theorem. Indian mathematicians calculated the value of π, pi, with a very high decree of precision, and determined the circumference of the earth and the timing of lunar and solar eclipses. In the 15th century CE, Kerala, in the very south, was home to a school of mathematics which developed trigonometric functions.

In India, mathematical knowledge always developed in conjunction with its practical application. Already the Harappa civilization, some 2,500 years BCE, used geometry in order to calculate the size of fields. In Vedic culture maths was used to determine the size of altars and for deciding when to engage in various religious rituals. Likewise, notion of zero and infinity both have their origin in religious speculations. The world as we know it contains no nothing; everything we see around us is something. Yet in Buddhist philosophy, nothingness is a key concept and the goal of mediation is to empty one’s mind. Nothingness, to a Buddhist, is real. Meanwhile, the Jains were fascinated by very large numbers. They told stories of gods who appeared millions of times with millions of years apart. The better you can understand the infinite, they argued, the better you can understand the divine.

The history of mathematics is a great example of a civilizational exchange. The Indians learned math from the Greeks, taught the Arab world, which in turn taught the Europeans. At each stage, the knowledge was transformed and improved on. To this day only some ten percent of all the manuscripts on Sanskrit science have been published and much remains to be properly studied. There may be many surprising discoveries to be made.

External links:

Incarnations, “Ramanujan: The Elbow of Genius”

Incarnations, “Aryabhata: The Boat of Intellect”

In Our Time, “Indian mathematics”

The Buddhist monastery complex at Nalanda, in today’s Indian state of Bihar, was a center of learning founded in the fifth century CE. Archaeological excavations which begun in 1915 has revealed temples, lecture and meditation halls, libraries and gardens, together with a trove of sculptures, coins, seals and inscriptions. Subjects taught here included the Vedas, logic, Sanskrit grammar, medicine, fine arts, astronomy, mathematics, politics and epistemology. Above all, however, it was a center of Buddhist learning which flourished under the Gupta empire, 240-590 CE. [Read more:Indian mathematics“] Much of our knowledge of Nalanda comes from the writings of Chinese monks who came here to study in the seventh century. At the height of its prominence the university had some 2,000 professors and 10,000 students who all were accommodated in dormitories. Nalanda was the first educational institution to conduct entrance exams. The fortunes of the university declined after the Gupta rulers and in the 1190s it was destroyed by invading armies from Central Asia.

Al Quaraouiyine, in Fez, Morocco, is sometimes said to be the oldest university in the world, founded in 859 CE. [Read more:Ibn Rushd and the challenge of reason“] The oldest universities in Europe – Paris and Bologna, founded in the thirteenth-century CE – are far younger. Nalanda is older than all of them. However, while Nalanda was destroyed, Al Quaraouiyine has been in continuous operation for close to 1,200 years. Yet since 2014 Nandala University is once again accepting students. Led by Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize winning economist, and with economic support from various Asian countries, its aim is to once again to become Asia’s leading center of learning. Subjects taught here include ecology, history economics and languages. Buddhism is taught too but features less prominently on the curriculum than once was the case. The hope is that Nandala University can help contribute to the economic development of Bihar which is one of India’s poorest regions.

External links:

15 Minute History, “The era between the empires of ancient India”

The Chinese emperors of the Qing dynasty did not live in the imposing buildings that tourists still can see in the center of Beijing, they lived at Yuangmingyuan. Yuanmingyuan, just northwest of Beijing, was a large pleasure garden filled with palaces, villas, temples, pagodas, lakes, flowers and trees. It was also the location of an imperial archive and library, and the place where the emperors stored tributary gifts given to them by foreign delegations. The Yuanmingyuan was the secluded playground of the Chinese rulers; it was “the garden of gardens”and a vision of paradise.

In October, 1860, a combined army of British and French troops entered Yuanmingyuan and destroyed the whole thing. Between October 6 and 9, the French looted much of the contents of the palaces. The soldiers, including many officers, ran from room to room, “decked out in the most ridiculous-looking costumes they could find,” looking for loot. The ceramics were smashed, the artwork pulled down, the jewelry pilfered, rolls of the emperor’s best silk were used to tie up the army’s horses. “Officers and men seemed to have been seized with a temporary insanity”; “a furious thirst has taken hold of us”; it was an “orgiastic rampage of looting.” Then on October 18, James Bruce, the eighth Lord Elgin, the highest-ranking diplomat and leader of the British mission to China, decided to burn the entire compound to the ground. Since most of the buildings were made of cedar-wood, they burned quickly, but since the compound was so huge it still took the British soldiers two days to complete the task.

The Europeans committed this act of barbarism in order to “civilize” the Chinese. In the middle of the nineteenth-century, the Europeans had only limited access to the Chinese market for their goods; they could not travel around the country and there were no European diplomats or missionaries permanently stationed there. This, the Europeans decided, was the reason why China had failed to become a modern, civilized, country. China had isolated itself and failed to keep up with world events, but now the Europeans were going to help them. By making war on the Chinese, they were going to force the Chinese to open up to the world market and to influences from abroad. The destruction of Yuanmingyuan was the act of barbarism which was to decide the matter. The destruction terrorized the emperor and the court and made them realize that they were powerless against the intruders.

External links:

In Our Time, “The Opium Wars”

Carl Linnaeus, 1707-1778, or “Carl von Linné” as Swedes call him, was the botanist who came up with the Latin names for all plants and animals. In fact, they were not only named by him but organized into a system – a Systema naturæ, to give the title of his most famous work, 1735 – in which every living thing found its proper place. In this system all species could be related to each other, even those that had not yet been discovered. Linné’s system of nature had a universal scope. In order put names into the many empty grids, Linnaeus traveled around Sweden looking for plants, but he also dispatched his students – often referred to as his “disciples” – to find new plants in the most remote corners of the globe.

Linnaeus believed botany should serve the interests of the nation. In particular he found it an outrage that Swedes spent their hard-earned money on tea from China. We are sending silver to the Chinese and all we get in return are dry leaves! Thus when one of his disciples one day returned from China with a tea bush, Linné was very excited and devised a plan to start a tea plantation in his native Uppsala. Imagine how rich the country would be if we never have to trade with foreigners! Unfortunately, however, the bush died when exposed to the harsh Swedish winter.

Carl von Linné may have been a great botanist but he, together with next to all of his contemporaries, did not understand much about political economy. The wealth of a nation, as Adam Smith later was to explain, consists of what it can produce and Sweden cannot produce tea. It is much better to let the Chinese focus on tea and for Swedes to focus on what they are comparatively better at producing – cars, for example, or flat-pack furniture. By focusing on their respective advantages and by trading with each other, the wealth of both China and Sweden will be maximized. Smith, in the Wealth of Nations, 1776, provided the intellectual rationale for a global market in which there are no borders and no custom duties.


External links:

Scientific American, “What’s In A Latin Name: The Legacy of Linnaeus”

Richard Coeur-de-lion, or “Lionheart,” 1157-1199 CE, was an English king yet he is famous above all as one of the commanders of the Third Crusade. In 1099, during the First Crusade, the Europeans had captured Jerusalem and established a Christian kingdom there. In 1187, however, the Faranj were decisively defeated at the Battle of Hattin and Jerusalem retaken by the Muslims. It was to relieve them, and to try to get Jerusalem back, that Richard set off for the Holy Land. On the way there he occupied Sicily in 1190, Cyprus in 1191, and once he arrived he retook the city of Acre. The Faranj established a new kingdom here which was to last until 1291. [Read more:Rabban Bar Sauma, Mongol envoy to the pope“] But that was as far as Richard got. The various European commanders were quarreling with each other; they lacked the soldiers and the patience required for a successful campaign. Despite repeated attempts, Richard never recaptured Jerusalem.

The person who more than anyone else stopped the Europeans was An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, 1137–1193 CE, known as “Salah ad-Din” or “Saladin.” Saladin was of Kurdish origin but had made his career with the Fatamids in Cairo where he rose to become vizir. In 1171, he turned on his employer and established a dynasty of his own, the Ayyubids, 1171-1270 CE. It was Saladin and the Ayyubid armies that defeated the Crusaders at Hattin, took Jerusalem back, and successfully defended themselves against the onslaught of the Faranj.

Richard Lionheart and Saladin are the original “knights in shining armor.” Despite an abundance of high-quality scholarship on the Crusades it is difficult to separate facts about them from all the fiction. Walter Scott, the British author, published a highly romanticized account of their rivalry in 1825, and in the twentieth-century Hollywood has produced a number of similar versions. According to the Europeans, Richard brought Christianity and civilization to the Middle East. According to the Arabs, Saladin defended Muslim lands against a barbarian invasion. Reading, and fantasizing, about them ever since, political leaders both in Europe and in the Muslim world have found their respective role models.

External links:

In Our Time, “The Third Crusade”

Sir Walter Scott, Talisman

In 1620, a ship, the Mayflower, transported 102 passengers from Plymouth, England, to what was to become the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts, New England. A majority of the people on-board were Puritans, members of a strict Protestant denomination who were persecuted in Europe. Yet they arrived too late in the season to plant crops and, the story goes, they survived only because of the help they received from the natives. The following year, after their own first harvest, they held a “thanksgiving,” a ritual meal which is commemorated by Americans to this day.

The reason they survived the first winter, it turns out, was not that they were given food by the natives, but rather that they stole it. One of the Puritans, William Bradford, who chronicled the event, describes how they ransacked houses and dug up native burial mounds looking for buried stashes of corn. “And sure it was God’s good providence that we found this corn, for else we know not how we should have done.” A far greater devastation was caused by European diseases. The hand of God, Thomas Morgan, another early settler, recalled, “fell heavily upon them, with such a mortall stroake that they died on heapes as they lay in their houses.” Yet this too, the settlers decided, was a result of the foresight of the Christian God who had made the land “so wondrously empty.” “Why then should we stand starving here for places of habitation … and in the mean time suffer whole countries, as profitable for the use of man, to lie waste without any improvement?”

People in the United States think of the passengers on the Mayflower as the first Americans. Those who can claim descent from one of them consider themselves as uniquely American. There are today some ten million people who can make that claim.

External links:

History of the World in 100 Objects: “North American Buck Skin Map”

On August 22, 1791, the slaves on the French island of Saint-Domingue in the Caribbean begun a rebellion which ended with independence for the new country of Haiti in 1804. This was the first successful slave rebellion in the Americas and Haiti was the second country, after the United States, to become independent of European colonizers. The French had first arrived in the 1660s and in 1697 they established a colony here. Saint-Domingue was a quiet, provincial, outpost until the sugarcane arrived. In the eighteenth-century Europeans developed an intense love affair with sugar and it was above all on plantations in the Caribbean that it was produced. The labor force required for the task was imported as slaves from Africa. [Read more:Dancing kings and female warriors of Dahomey“] Soon the plantation owners in Saint-Domingue were making enormous profits. The 40,000 whites on the island were the owners of some 500,000 African slaves.

The French Revolution of 1789 provided the slaves with a language in which to formulate their demands. They too wanted liberté, égalité and fraternité. In addition, the voodoo religion united the community around a shared identity. The leader of the uprising, Toussaint Louverture, was a freed slave who soon proved himself to be a very talented general. Before long he had the slave masters on the run. However, once Napoleon Bonaparte had come to power in Paris, he sent a punitive expedition to the Caribbean. They captured Toussaint Louverture and dispatched him to France. Yet the revolution itself was unstoppable. New, equally talented, leaders emerged and in 1803 the French army was conclusively defeated. Independence was declared the following year. The country was renamed “Haiti,” meaning “mountainous place” in the language spoken by the Taino, the people who had lived here before Columbus arrived.

The subsequent history of Haiti is a sad one. By the nineteenth-century the sugar boom was over and the country’s new elite proved itself to be both authoritarian and corrupt. The United States invaded the island in 1915 and occupied it until 1934. Since 1945, the country has had a number of dictators and military coups have replaced one another. Haiti is today the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

External links:

15 Minute History, “Effects of the slave trade on the Americas”

15 Minute History, “The Haitian Revolution”