Mathematics as a language
The central question involved in discussing
mathematics as a language can be stated as follows :
- What do we mean when we talk about the language of mathematics ? To what extent does mathematics meet generally accepted criteria of being a language ?
A secondary question is :
- If it is valid to consider mathematics as a language, does this provide any new insights into the origins of mathematics, the practice of mathematics or the philosophy of mathematics ?.
To answer the first question, we need some definitions of language. The Wikipedia article on
language contains several definitions. Other definitions are :-
- a systematic means of communicating by the use of sounds or conventional symbols - WordNet
- a system of words used in a particular discipline - WordNet
- the code we all use to express ourselves and communicate to others - Speech & Language Therapy Glossary of Terms
- a set (finite or infinite) of sentences, each finite in length and constructed out of a finite set of elements - Noam Chomsky
These definitions describe language in terms of the following components :-
- A vocabulary of symbols or words
- Rules of how these symbols may be used - a grammar
- A community of people who use and understand these symbols
- A range of meanings that can be communicated with these symbols
To expand on the concept of mathematics as a language, we can look at each of these components within mathematics itself.
Mathematical notation has assimilated symbols from many different alphabets and fonts. It also includes symbols that are specific to mathematics, such as
Like any other
profession, mathematics also has its own brand of
technical terminology. In some cases, a word in general usage has a different and specific meaning within mathematics - examples are
group,
ring,
field,
category.
In other cases, specialist terms have been created which do not exist outside of mathematics - examples are tensor, fractal, functor. Mathematical statements have their own moderately complex taxonomy, being divided into axioms, conjectures, theorems, lemmas and corollaries. And there are stock phrases in mathematics, used with specific meanings, such as "if and only if", "necessary and sufficient" and "without loss of generality".
The grammar that determine whether a mathematical argument is or is not valid is mathematical logic. In principle, any series of mathematical statements can be written in a
formal language, and a
finite state automaton can apply the rules of logic to check that each statement follows from the previous ones.
Various mathematicians (most notably Frege and Russell) attempted to achieve this in practice, in order to place the whole of mathematics on a axiomatic basis. Gödel's incompleteness theorem shows that this ultimate goal is unreachable - any formal language that is powerful enough to capture mathematics will contain undecidable statements. Nevertheless, the vast majority of statements in mathematics are decidable, and the existence of undecidable statements is not a serious obstacle to practical mathematics.
Mathematics is used by mathematicians, who form a global community. It is interesting to note that there are very few cultural dependencies or barriers in modern mathematics. There are international mathematics competitions, such as the
International Mathematical Olympiad, and international co-operation between professional mathematicians is commonplace.
Mathematics is used to communicate information about a wide range of different subjects. Here are three broad categories :-
Mathematics can communicate a range of meanings that is as wide as (although different from) that of a natural language. As
German mathematician R.L.E. Schwarzenberger says :-
- My own attitude, which I share with many of my colleagues, is simply that mathematics is a language. Like English, or Latin, or Chinese, there are certain concepts for which mathematics is particularly well suited: it would be as foolish to attempt to write a love poem in the language of mathematics as to prove the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra using the English language. - Schwarzenberger (2000)
Alternative views
Some definitions of language, such as early versions of Charles Hockett's "design features" definition, emphasise the spoken nature of language. Mathematics would not qualify as a language under these definitions, as it is primarily a written form of communication (to see why, try reading Maxwell's equations out loud). However, these definitions would also disqualify
sign languages, which are now recognised as languages in their own right, independent of spoken language.
Other linguists believe no valid comparison can be made between mathematics and language, because they are simply too different :-
- Mathematics would appear to be both more and less than a language for while being limited in its linguistic capabilities it also seems to involve a form of thinking that has something in common with art and music. - Ford & Peat (1988)
References
- R. L. E. Schwarzenberger (2000), The Language of Geometry, published in A Mathematical Spectrum Miscellany, Applied Probability Trust
- Alan Ford & F. David Peat (1988), The Role of Language in Science, Foundations of Physics Vol 18
Related articles
External links