The importance of language and numbers: a complex relationship 

Language is pretty important. Along with maths and science, it’s one of the most important subjects (although many Nerds don’t see a distinction between maths and science). As one person told me: “We use language every day, but maths uses us”. The world is often divided between the maths/science people and the arts/humanities people, and that maths and language are complete opposites. One such argument is that maths is universal and that all equations lead to the same results, whereas language is not natural or innate. I’m afraid saying that maths is the opposite of English is like yin and yang; one cannot exist without the other. There are more similarities between the two than you may realise, but nobody has taught you.

But first, to answer an important question: is language a man made construct?

Maths is though to be the universal language 

On maths being a human construct: it depends on whether you’re willing to count non humans. Nearly every life form has some means of communicating – dogs sniff at their rear ends, prairie dogs have different calls for predators, and creatures such as lobsters have mating rituals. Stags battle for does over dominance, and can even vote using their ear.Plants even communicate with insects using pheromones and smells. Humans can even learn to understand how an animal is feeling based on the tone of its cries, its stance or its facial expressions. So, non verbal communication expressed to convey messages isn’t unique to people. As for complex two way communication between people and creatures, primates and squid can learn sign language if they are taught. Unfortunately, we have yet to teach them to translate for other animals. A smile said to have universal meaning, and supposedly tears mean the same.

The debate, however, is different for written language. Nearly every culture has written signs or symbols to signify something – British Sign Language, Chinese and hieroglyphics to name a few. This is where communication evolves into language, and grammar, punctuation and tone are introduced. Written language is supposed to reflect the spoken word, but there’s been a few cases where this isn’t always the case.

As for maths, nearly everything is made up of numbers – time, atoms, creatures multiplying and so on. As a result, the number system was added to our language, along with symbols for square roots, pi, infinity and the multiply and divide symbols. This, therefore, makes maths a language, presumably understood by all – even computers.

But, maths and English do not always communicate the same things. And, many maths and science snobs have insisted that maths is more important, more useful and makes more sense than English. Many defenders of English have argued that, when used correctly, English has more practical value in everyday life over algebra, trigonometry and long multiplication – especially since calculators, code, algorithms and spreadsheets do a much better job of  replacing humans than for using language (just look at what the spellchecker did if you don’t believe me).

So, what makes a language?

A language is a formal system for the exchange of information. The context might be to solve a problem, answer a question or determine a conclusion from something. Maths does all of these things. English goes a bit further by embedding itself into culture due to people’s ability to manipulate it for creative uses (maths is usually too concrete to be used in art by itself). Yes, even chemistry has its own symbols for elements on the periodic table. You can convey information with maths, but can you hold a conversation or tell jokes with it? Essentially, words can be more easily combined with other subjects such as music or drawing. Granted, songs and drawing do use a degree of numbers in their composition.

Maths and English are supposed to work in harmony, since English often has certain lengths defining things such as paragraphs. As for maths, you can still write numbers in written form, as well as using words to to pose questions and give answers. I suggest that the reason maths and English do not always get along is because English is used to explain maths, but maths cannot explain English.

My mother once said that knowledge is like an orange; it has many segments in it, but forms a whole (hence why there’s a picture of an orange). The different segments represent the fields; law, technology, business, science, maths, the arts and language. We all start off with a full fruit, but we lose segments as we forget to apply what we learn. The white pith running through the middle is your mind, connecting all the pieces together. Maths and English all belong in the orange skin, symbolising the education system. You, as an individual, are the tree the orange grows on as you expanding and branch out.

It might be easier to say that the tree is knowledge itself, because of the Tree of Knowledge in Genesis. But you cannot consume a tree (no, I’m not Lucifer telling you to eat the orange). Knowledge is something you consume, but subjects are what grows from watering the tree. Learn to combine maths into english, and vice versa, and you can go far.

 

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