Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Art and the Metric System

Sometimes, I hear a snatch of a song a couple of times, and it recurringly pops up in my head months later, often triggered by a word or tone that sounds like something in the song. So it is with some songs by various contemporary Israeli artists. I don't listen to them regularly (though I'd like to start buying some of their work one of these days), but I occasionally hear them played at a Yom Ha'atzma'ut party, in someone's car, or on Internet radio.

Recently, my cranial DJ has been periodically spinning a theme from what Google tells me is an Achinoam Nini (aka Noa) song. It goes:
(Transliteration of Hebrew): baMEEliMETter shebeiNEE l'veinCHA
(Translation): In the millimeter between me and you

Now, it's occurred to me that this line could never work in an American song. In the US, a word like "millimeter" has overtones of scientific specialization, and there's no equivalently tiny measurement in the common parlance. "Sixteenth of an inch"? Too difficult to fit in a song, and anyway, makes it sound like a carpenter's singing. We just don't have an occupationally unladen way to express such a small distance.

An additional exploitation of the Metric System comes in a variant of this theme at the beginning of one of the verses:
baKEEloMETter shebeiNEE l'veinCHA
In the kilometer between me and you
This works well in Hebrew because "millimeter" and "kilometer" are pronounced therein in a way that lets them fit into the same, ah, meter. In addition, because mm and km share a basic unit, the contrast between the two variants of the line is stronger than if "inch" and "mile" were in their place.

So, interestingly (to me, at least), a particular artistic idea -- in this case one that achieved a great deal of popularity -- was enabled only because of a country's choice of standard measurement system. You don't normally expect decisions of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, for example, to impact the art world, but there it is.

Actually, the affect on art is indicative of a more general affect on what thoughts are available to people. The use of the Metric System by the general public allows everyone to conceptualize many different scales, from milli- to mega- (and beyond), and to understand intuitively how they relate to each other.

Ironically, the effect here is the opposite of what you might expect after reading George Orwell. The Newspeak he invented for Nineteen Eighty-Four would have approved heartily of the Metric System, since it uses one basic word per concept and forces all related words into modifications of that word (e.g. "doubleplusungood" instead of "horrible"). However, the intent of this feature of Newspeak was to limit the kinds of thoughts people can think, while, as I've demonstrated, the Metric System actually enabled an artistic expression that the more varied vocabulary of inches, feet, and miles hampers.

** Cross-posted from Mosi


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