Lambda λ

By Caroline Liu


“superchlorine,” you say, “this makes absolutely no sense. Sure, ‘lambda’ has ‘lamb’ in it, but then ‘lampoon’ has ‘lamp’ in it, so are you going to draw a ridiculous lamp or something next? Why are you doing this?!”

WAIT, it has more meaning than just, “Ooh, ‘lambda’ has the substring ‘lamb’, I’mma gonna make a comic outta that.” You see, the copula – essentially the verb “to be” – in Japanese is -da. So to say “__ is a lamb”, you would say lamb-da. So lambda = "__ is a lamb". Har, har! Funny, right?

Even funnier in a geeky linguistic-y way is that in lambda calculus, lambda is a function that binds a variable to a predicate. This means that whatever value that variable holds, that value will have the property of that predicate. E.g. in λx.p(x), where x is a variable and p = "is tall", we’re saying that “x is tall”. If x = "Adam", then the lambda function plops “Adam” in p, and gives us the result “Adam is tall”.

Now, back to lambs. “is a lamb” is clearly a predicate – it gives some object the property of being a lamb. Above, I said that lambda = "__ is a lamb". Why the blank space? Japanese drops subjects – so if you want to tell someone that you (he/your little sister/your pet snake/etc) are(is) eating, you can get away with just saying “Am eating” if it’s clear in the conversation that you’re talking about yourself (that guy/your sister/your pet snake/oh you get it already right?). So, if you look at just the sentence “Am eating” with no conversation context, the subject is kinda…variable. Variable subject with a predicate in Japanese? Lambda calculus? Lamb-da? LAMBDA!

Oh, so much linguistics geekery. I am almost embarrassed, but not quite there yet.

Anyway, Japanese version:


And a Korean version, which is kind of pushing it because you would say lamb-ee-da in Korean instead to avoid adjacent consonant sounds. I was having too much fun making these graphics though, so here you are:


Idea thanks to a friend who pointed out that “lamb-da” had a different interpretation in Japanese.

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