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Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Why Do Brits Say "Maths" and Americans Say "Math"?

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"The Imitation Game, a glossy new biopic about the British cryptanalyst Alan Turing, features a lot of maths. Characters take advanced maths classes that require them to scribble complicated maths on notebook paper, and then they set their sights on the devilish maths of the Nazi Enigma machine."  reports Katy Waldman, Slate’s words correspondent.

Photo: Slate Magazine (blog)

To American audiences, all those maths might seem doubly mysterious in their propensity to add and multiply. We Yanks prefer to pledge allegiance to the Math, indivisible, under God.

For a field centered on numbers, math seems pretty confused about its pluralization. Americans and Canadians tend to say math while Brits and Australians opt for maths. In defense of our star-spangled convention, “math” is more consistent with the way English speakers abbreviate disciplines like economics (econ) and linguistics (ling). Still, both versions are correct, if complicated by the fact that while mathematics sounds plural, it may actually be singular.

As “Lynneguist” Lynne Murphy explains on her blog, the “s” at the end of mathematics is only homonymous with the type of “s” that transforms one cook into too many cooks. It looks like a pluralizing “s,” but it acts like the deadbeat second “s” in “chess.” Mathematics qualifies instead as a mass noun (there goes another deadbeat s): The word may gesture toward quantity, but it is uncountable. Some mass nouns—anger, music, countryside—are too abstract to be divisible. Others—sushi, furniture, cinnamon—might break into discrete units, but these units add up to something slightly different than conventional plurals, such as dogs, pens, or cream cheese brownies.

Intriguingly, mathematics fits both definitions of a mass noun at once. It is a broad type of inquiry—the abstract science of number, quantity, and space—AND a bundle of countable disciplines, including geometry, trigonometry, and algebra. Either way, it prefers singular verbs. (“Mathematics is the language with which God wrote the Universe,” said Galileo.) Before the singular noun mathematic entered the lexicon in the 14th century, it did a stint as a Greek adjective, mathematike, as in mathematike tekne, or “technological science.” Before that, it was a noun, mathema (sorry, high school self, no relation to anathema), meaning “lesson” or “that which is learnt.” Its cognates include the Greek verb for “to care,” which also gives us “memory” and “mind,” and a German adjective signifying “lively” or “awake.” (If etymology were destiny, no one would ever be bored in math class.) As Word Detective points out, you can see the semantic roominess of the original math in terms like “polymath,” which deals less with the art of quantification than with knowledge in general.

Source: Slate Magazine (blog)

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