Feynman Corrected

Long before there was video games, and long before there was texting, and long before the advent of the internet and email, kids used to engage in an activity called stamp collecting...stamps being the method we used to pay for snail mail.
As a kid, Feynman also used to collect stamps. Ninety nine percent of all stamps were rectangular or square, but the country formerly known as Tannu Tuva used to issue triangular and diamond shaped stamps, which made them even more interesting to kids -- and Feynman. 
When in 1977 he and friend Ralph Leighton discovered that the capital of Tuva was spelled K-Y-Z-Y-L (Leighton: "That's crazy. There's not a legitimate vowel anywhere!"  Feynman: "A place that's spelled K-Y-Z-Y-L has just got to be interesting!"), they decided they must make a journey to Soviet controlled Tuva. The journey ended up taking 10 years to complete, and is told in Leighton's book "Tuva or Bust!" and also mentioned in the play "QED: a play".
    In 1980, Leighton received a letter from Tuva -- in the Tuvan language, which neither he or Feynman spoke. However, they did have a Tuvan-Russian dictionary, and a Russian-English dictionary, and so armed, Feynman and Leighton attempted to translate...
Leighton describes the process of translation:
     "The third sentence came out 'Me Darma Ondar called, forty-five snowy I.' 
We couldn't make head nor tail of 'forty-five snowy I'.
     'Imagine you were a Navajo living on a reservation in New Mexico,' said Richard, beginning to laugh. 'And one day, out of the blue, you get this letter written in broken Navajo from a guy in Russia using a Navajo-Spanish-English phrasebook that he got translated into Russian by a friend of his. So you write back to him in real Navajo...'
     "No wonder it's hard to read real Tuvan," I said. Then Richard suddenly said, 'Hey, I've got it: the guy is forty-five years old.'
     It made perfect sense. It was something like saying, 'I have survived-five winters' -- an apt phrase for Tuva, which lies between Siberia and Mongolia.
     We checked the dictionaries again. There was a second definition for 'snowy' that came out letnii in Russian -- 'summer' in English!    
     'Winters, summers, what does it matter?' said Richard. 'It still could mean he has lived forty-five years'.
     Then I looked carefully through the phrasebook again. At the bottom of page 32 was the question 'How old are you?' And at the top of page 33 was the answer: 'dorten besh kharlyg men' -'forty-five snowy I'"
....Well, sad to say, the "Man of a Thousand Tongues", as Feynman describes himself in one of his Feynman stories, got this one wrong. So, let's take a look and see what Feynman missed...To do this, you only need to learn a few Russian words! The Russian for "year" and the Russian for "summer", plus a little grammar.

   First, the Russian word for "year", changes, depending on the number of years. So, for example:
1 year is "godt"
2,3, or 4 years is "2 godta", "3 godta", and "4 godta"
and for more than 4 years, we do not use godt, but instead the word "let". So according to this rule, 5 years would be "5 let"...
and 40 years is 40 let, 41 years is 41 godt, 42 years is 42 godta, 43 years is 43 godta, 44 years is 44 godta...while 45 years is 45 let.

Now, here is the first obstacle that Feynman and Leighton would have to overcome...When one looks up "year" in a Russian-English dictionary, one normally finds only "godt", and not the second word "let".


      The Russian word for "summer" is "leta".

RUSSIAN GRAMMAR -- adjectives!
Here we come to the second obstacle that Feynman and Leighton would have to overcome, and it is non-trivial and it is usually NOT emphasized in Russian language text books -- (I have many such books and have yet to see it mentioned, but I hear the usage all the time on Russian TV. So, somehow it is not stressed, but more on that later)...
The adjective form of "summer" and the adjective form of "year" are IDENTICAL -- letnii
So, if I want to say "summer day", I say "letnii day" (if you want the Russian exactly: летний день)
If I want to say "I am a 45 year old man", I can say "I 45 letnii man", (or in exact Russian: я 45 летний мужчина)...OK, to be precise, the Russian grammar also requires a change to the word 45 --and so sorok changes to soroka, but that is not relevant to Feynman's error.)
     Again, as mentioned, the same adjective, летний or letnii, is used, and the listener/reader must determine from the context whether it is "summer" or "yearly" that is intended. Feynman and Leighton picked the wrong word -- "summer" instead of "yearly"!

    The final obstacle that Feynman and Leighton would have had to overcome, and also the reason I believe it is not easily found in the Russian textbooks... is that English does not have an adjective form of year equivalent to the Russian adjective form of year...
    So, in English, we use the adjective "yearly" thus -- "a yearly event" -- to indicate the frequency of something, but never as Russians do --
" 45 yearly man"...to describe an objects age.