19 interesting facts about language and numbers

Like many translators I’m not really a numbers person. I did alright in Mathematics in school and have no problem doing my own accounts, but despite having a maths-teacher husband, and a father who started his career as a maths teacher, I’ve always preferred language to numbers. However I recently listened to a podcast episode about the language of numbers in which they mentioned a book by Alex Bellos called The Grapes Of Math (US)/Alex Through the Looking-Glass (UK) and my curiosity was piqued. I ended up reading not only that book, but the preceding volume Alex’s Adventures in Numberland (UK)/Here’s Looking at Euclid (US)!

Now I won’t pretend to have understood everything in the books  ;-) but I do recommend them especially if you’re more mathematically minded than I am. Although they’re primarily journeys through the world of numbers, I couldn’t help but be interested in some of the language-related facts they contain*:

In The Grapes of Math:

  • “The Sumerians did not look far when coming up with names. The word for one, ges, also meant man, or erect phallus”.
  • “English … is the only major European language to have unrelated words for odd and even. In French, German and Russian, for example, the words for even and odd are ‘even’ and ‘not-even’: pair/impair, gerade/ungerade,  chyotny/nyechyotny
  • Zipf’s law: in most languages the frequency of any word is inversely proportional to its rank in the frequency table, i.e. there is a mathematical pattern governing word choices.
The rank vs. frequency rule of Zipf's law also works if you apply it to the sizes of cities.

The rank vs. frequency rule of Zipf’s law also works if you apply it to the sizes of cities.

  • “From the translation of the Latin [pars minuta prima and pars minuta secunda] we get the words ‘minute‘ and ‘second‘, our units of time, which are the most prominent modern relics of the ancient practice of counting in groups of sixty.”
  • “The Arabs transliterated [a Sanskrit word] as jiba, a meaningless term, but it sounds a bit like jaib, meaning bosom, or bay, which they came to use. Latin versions of Arab texts translated jaib as sinus, the word for the fold of a toga over a woman’s breasts. Sinus became sine.”
  • “Optical applications .. in fact, explain the origin of the word ‘focus‘: it is the Latin for ‘fireplace’. In German its etymology is clearer—’focus’ is Brennpunkt, or burning point.” (‘Focus’ meaning the burning point of reflected light beams).
  • “The earliest stargazers observed that planets do not move in straight lines—they meander across the skies, often temporarily looping backward. (The word “planet” comes from the Greek planetes, wanderer.)”
  • “A double negative in English, of course, is a positive. The linguist J. L. Austin once told a conference that there are no languages in which two positives make a negative. It is said that the philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser, sitting in the audience, replied: “Yeah, yeah.”
  • “Latin versions of [Arab mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi]’s surname were later used to describe the arithmetical techniques he publicized, and are the root of the word ‘algorithm‘.”
  • Non-linguistic but interesting fact: according to French mathematician Cédric Vilani, Paris has more professional mathematicians than any other city, about a thousand.
Flamboyant French mathematician Cédric Villani at his office at the Institut Henri Poincaré. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 3.0

Flamboyant French mathematician Cédric Villani at the Institut Henri Poincaré.
© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 3.0

  • “The term for a word that appears only once in a text is hapax legomenon, which sounds like a character from an Asterix story, or a Scandinavian death metal band, and in this text appears only once.”

It’s only when I got to the end of The Grapes of Math and read the acknowledgements that I realised Alex’s father is David Bellos, of Fish In My Ear fame! I then read Alex’s Adventures in Numberland, which is in fact the previous book:

  • “The word ‘grocer’ … is a relic of a retailer’s preference for 12 – it comes from ‘gross’, meaning a dozen dozen, or 144.”
  • “The procedure the Treasury used was … a system of ‘double tallies’. A piece of wood was split down the middle, giving two parts – the stock and the foil. A value was marked – tallied – on the stock and was also marked on the foil, which acted like a receipt. If I lent some money to the Bank of England, I would be given a stock with a notch indicating the amount – which explains the origin of the words stockholder and stockbroker – while the bank kept the foil, which had a matching notch.”
Medieval tally sticks SourceFlickr

Medieval tally sticks (Source Flickr)

  • “Imagine, as was common practice [in Pythagoras’ time], counting with pebbles. (Latin for pebble is calculus, which explains the origin of the word ‘calculate’.)”
  • “Greek mathematics was almost entirely geometry – derived from their words for ‘earth’ and ‘measurement’”
  • Ever heard of ‘piems’ ? They are poems that represent π (pi) in a way such that the length of each word (in letters) represents a digit (a 0 requires a ten-letter word). Based on the same principle, whole stories have been written in the pilish style. Quite a constraint!

A mnemonic for remembering the first 7 decimal digits of pi

  • gEOLOgIZE, ILLEgIBLE and EISEgESIS are the only three nine-letter words that can be made with an electronic calculator (using the letters O, I, Z, E, h, S, g, L and B, which are the LED digits 0 to 9 when turned upside-down).
  • Infinity symbol: did you know the endless loop ∞ is called a lemniscate? The word comes from the Latin lēmniscātus meaning “decorated with ribbons”.
  • Ambigram: a word (or set of words) written in such a way as to conceal other words, often the same word (or set of words) written upside-down.”
Animated ambigram of the word "ambigram".

Animated ambigram of the word “ambigram”.

* in chronological order, but without page numbers as I read digital versions of both books.

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