Thursday, 15 October 2009

Maths & Engish (no, not Dizzee Rascal's album)

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 And there you have it. Ten digits, ten numerical symbols. A perfect hermetically sealed system from which all mathematics stems from. All the way up to infinity, a mind blowing concept but related back to these basic numbers - in this case, symbollically all you have to do is turn a number 8 on its side and hey presto, the symbol for infinity! Everything mathematical refers back to these ordinal first terms. They reach out to encapsulate the physical universe and the physical universe is defined wholly in these first terms. The four basic functions, + - X / and equals, even these derive from the interrelationship of the numbers straddling them, One digit functioned upon to yield another. And when there are logical breakdowns within the system, the NP problem or The Hodge Conjecture and the rest, well then mathematicians ironically revert to the alphabetical abstraction of letters (Roman or Greek) in order to try and grapple with their breaches. So the numbers are still unsullied, untainted. It's the algebraic letters and the limitations of language and metaphor wot get the blame. Quantum behaviour? We just haven't cracked the multi-dimensionality to come up with a predictive probability for it yet is all.

But enough of maths, I get enough arithmetic all day at work. The only sheets I want to spread are those of a folio of a book. Maybe soon I won't even be able to do that the way technology and the market may be heading.

We possess 26 letters in our alphabet, a finite number to correspond to a finite set of phonic sounds to express every one of our words. Of course there are more than 26 phonic sounds, so here at source we already have a great deal of slippage, unlike the flawless 10 numerals within maths. Never mind, onwards and upwards eh? We can aggregate our alphabetic characters into a huge amount of combinations, first within single words, then further sliced and diced and tossed into salad day sentences, building into novels and wonderful journeys within the logic of the human mind. It's ironic that the earliest traces of writing, all seem to be recording stocks figures and the debits and credits arising from them, ie accounting systems. Numbers demanding to be expressed in symbols again. Little more rivetting than reading somebody's laundry list.

Letters are the building blocks for reading and writing our language. Children learn to recognise letters and attach the requisite sounds to them. Then they learn to associate the character symbol with each letter and from that reconstruct the sound of the word from its written representation. As they become more and more fluent readers, the eye and brain bat scarcely an eyelid as they steam through blocks of print. The words ingested as familiar and therefore automatically scanned, even though the text is fresh and unseen to them. Once a reader is fluent, they take little cognizance of the letters on a page, being several processing steps ahead of that bottom reading rung.

So how does the basal building block of letters compare with the fundament of numbers in maths? The letters themselves bear little correlation other than sound, to the words they help form. A letter 'B' is no more indicative of a 'bear' or a 'bestowal' or some 'bitumen'. It happens to usher all three onto the tip of the tongue but that's about it. Other than phonetic ordering, the letters do not bear the ordination of numbers. They do not build into scales of importance. If letters bear no significance other than arranging sounds, then we have to move on to the unit of the word for deriving everything about language. In a curious way, like numbers, words are sort of hermetically sealed. They are individually defined in terms of other words which are defined themselves by other words defined... An endless loop. This reflects the origins of language, of roots of words, of importations from other languages whether by force or through trade. There is no equivalent of 10 digits, or 1000 basal words, from which all meaning stems through second and third stage acting upon them (prefixes and suffixes). Esperanto took a shot at naailing down a basic language at 900 root words, but has had to expand to accommodate all the new words of technology.

Clearly language isn't hermetically sealed. No perfectly circular system. New words are coming into usage all the time, old ones dying off. So, given that letters do not seem to be able to carry the same weight as numbers do in maths, do we still need the visual prompts they provide? Txt spk is fast pensioning off certain superannuated characters, vowels mainly (mind you, if you ever hear der yute speak, it's like vowels were never invented anyway as their lips barely crack open to eruct their glottal stops). Maybe we should just condemn printed matter off to the recycling bins forever and content ourselves with audio and vook delivery systems for our great works of literature. Printed books will become the new samizdat, the subversive, underground literature produced on home-made presses. Oh no wait, that's self-publishing isn't it?

Me, I haven't finished messing with the alphabet yet. I don't just want to break down words and probe their plasticity, I want to split their atomic letter structure. I play with typefaces and linearity, so self-publishing is pretty much beyond meeting my needs, with its template typesetting.

And Dizzee Rascal? he'll soundtrack it for me

Since I posted this, I have come across a wonderful blog posting about the symbology of letters and numbers by @egllinski which reminded me that the Hebrew alphabet also ascribes numerical value to its letters, thus buttressing worded 'proofs' with more mystical codes of proof by numerology... And the Sanskrit word 'Om' or 'Aum' that contains all sound within its three letters and is the creative force behind existence. Fascinating stuff.

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