I am studying to take the GRE for grad-school applications. I opened the book and the first part is all about reading comprehension – words. Can you imagine my reaction? Needless to say I thought studying (and the test) would be a breeze if it started with words. Then I got to the math section. I am STILL studying for the math section.

Math has never been my thing. Maybe that’s because it was never explained well to me, maybe it’s because I never thought there was room for both words and numbers in my brain.* I can see how logical numbers are, even though I don’t understand WHY they are logical. (If someone can explain that to me, with WORDS, they would probably be my hero.)

But here is the big question: How is it that we have a system of numbers that works so efficiently and so *consistently* when our words keep changing? My gut reaction is “because words allow for more creativity” but I know that math and numbers can create beautiful architecture and keep our cities organized. At the same time, I know that the math is the math. It doesn’t evolve, it doesn’t change. Sure, the mathematicians of the world can come up with new and scary TYPES of math, but 5×5 is *always *going to be 25. Words aren’t like that.

Words change all the time. We come up with new words all the time – just think of all those words that Shakespeare coined, or the words that are added to the dictionary every year (remember when unfriended was added?) Icelandic is an excellent example of adding new words – they don’t borrow terms like so many other languages. (Admittedly, this has not always been the case. The government there started regulating the language and what is added when they gained sovereignty in 1918.) An example, “telephone” is called (approximately) “long thread.” It was an old word that was brought back with new meaning.

People are infinitely creative when it comes to language. We change old words, we make new words. Numbers are always going to be the same. So maybe it’s true that words leave room for more creativity than numbers do. After all, look at all the languages on earth, look at all the *made up* languages that are linguistically sound. Words are beautiful.

What are some of your favorite words?

Take care, fellow travelers.

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*Just one note: After my college math class (the easiest one there was – Math in our World) I thought that maybe there is room for numbers and words – as long as the numbers are practical (things like basic arithmetic and even some geometry). Now studying for the GRE, I’ve got to throw out the “practical” bit and just make room. It’s hard work.

Comments on:"Words and Numbers" (6)jrustadsaid:Hi! I stumbled across your blog via Jess Landgraf’s “Nouns, Stories, and Connections.”

As a math major who loves the challenge of explaining math in words, your questions have gotten my brain humming. Initially, I wanted to protest that math evolves just like language, but as you argue, that isn’t strictly true. There’s something that differentiates the two. Hmm. I guess language is pretty decentralized, while math is centralized (or perhaps insular). Or it’s that math is a more specialized tool than language. I’ll see if I can untangle some of the threads you’re tugging on in the blog I’m trying to start, patternsandconnections.wordpress.com. Thanks for breaking my writer’s block! 🙂

emilyramossaid:I’m glad that my post got you thinking! There is something different between language and math, and as you say it can be hard put your finger on the exact differences.

Susanne Nelsonsaid:It’s because we operate in a base ten system!

emilyramossaid:Well, I understand that. For the most part I am just putting out of my mind the “why” questions at the moment and just memorizing the math like everyone always told me to. Unfortunately, the “why” is the important thing to me.

Susanne Nelsonsaid:Memorization is very useful in math. Asking and understanding why is also important. I wrote an entry about number bases. Check it out. 5 isn’t always 5, just in the base ten system. Why do we use the base ten system? That’s a great question. I’m not an expert on the history of mathematics, but it would be interesting to find out. I’ve often wondered why we measure time the way we do with calendars and why we use customary measurements, which seem so arbitrary, instead of metrics (which are also in the base ten system).

Math is a code just like language. There are usually many ways to arrive at the same answer. “Mathematics is the language of nature,” Galileo said. The interrelatedness to science probably makes math more concrete and absolute than language.

emilyramossaid:I think learning the history would be helpful for me – I had never considered that but I will have to look into it now. I agree that we tend to use measurements that don’t make much sense. I try to use metric as often as possible, because it makes more sense to me. As for the connectedness of science and math, that always seems so abstract to me. I took astronomy in college and it was hard for me to get around the giant numbers and vast distances – it’s just as hard to imagine tiny numbers (like for the size of atoms). I guess I’m the type of person who likes to enjoy the world and not worry to much about the molecules or numbers.