The not-so-universal language of mathematics

19 June 2013 by Alex Brown, posted in overseas science, speaking science

Is it "math" or "maths"? In this video from the excellent Youtube channel Numberphile, Lynne Murphy examines the linguistic roots of the word "mathematics", and the reasons why people say it differently as a function of their cultures:

So it seems the debate is hardly settled, at least in English. What about other languages?

In German, the subject is called die Mathematik, which is shortened to die Mathe, although in many cases the article is dropped entirely.  For example, "I have math(s) class now" is Ich habe jetzt Mathe. As far as I know, this is the same in German dialects, too.

It's a trickier situation in French. The subject is called les maths, which is a plural. This goes against the video above, where it is made clear that "maths" in English is not a plural. My guess is that the French word is short for les sciences mathématiques.

Les Mis character

I said les maths, not Les Mis'. Credit: Working Title Films

Colloquially, the plural name of the subject is often treated as a singular. For instance, you might say les maths, c'est fascinant! The c'est is the singular form of "it is". Strictly speaking, the correct form would be to say les maths sont une matière fascinante. Here, you would literally be saying "maths are a fascinating subject", but you would very quickly get into trouble over singulars and plurals. Is the Government terrible, or are they?

While we're on the subject of le/la/les, the Big Mac scene in the French version of Pulp Fiction makes for an odd experience.

In the Numberphile video, Lynne also makes an intriguing point about different pronunciations of other scientific words, such as alumin(i)um. Over the last few years I've learned to be a bit more relaxed about such things (realising that it's a waste of time to get upset on purpose over trivial matters), but my general view would be that for the sake of consistency, the pronunciation should follow the spelling. So if someone wants to pronounce it "aluminum", they should spell it without an "i". That being said, I don't believe that so strongly to spell it "thru":


Over to you:

  • Straw poll of my readers: do you say "math" or "maths"? I'm especially keen to hear what you say if English is not your first language.
  • Is there a similar debate in your own language?
  • Are there any other examples of scientific words which are pronounced differently in the US/UK/etc?


More Numberphile:


More Lynne Murphy:



12 Responses to “The not-so-universal language of mathematics”

  1. Pompom Sönnfors Reply | Permalink

    I'm Swedish and I think I say "maths". Oddly, I say "You do the math" when using that particular idiom. In Swedish it's singular: matematik, abbreviated matte. Just like the Germans.

    I can't think of a similar debate in Swedish except the seemingly universal one about collective nouns – are words like the army/Microsoft/a herd of sheep to be treated as singular or plural? The answer is, as always: both.

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      Thanks for your comment - I'm not too surprised that Swedish and German are the same here.

    • Susanna Reply | Permalink

      I'm also Swedish, but I say math. ;)

  2. Ludmila Reply | Permalink

    In Dutch, surprisingly, mathematics is called Wiskunde which according to Wikipedia ( is due to the fact that in the 17th century somebody defined Mathematics as 'the art of exactness or certainty'. Quite romantic in itself to define mathematics as an artform. So, there is no such debate in Dutch because the art can only be singular.

    Mind you, I am not a native Dutch speaker.

  3. Kaguya Reply | Permalink

    In Italian it is "math", and there is no such thing as a debate about it.

  4. elkement Reply | Permalink

    In Austria it had been common to say "Mathes" (spoken as: Mattes) about 20-30 years ago. Today, the German "Mathe" is prevailant. This is one of those examples of "Germanification" of typical Austrian terms, and younger children exhibit a "German German accent".
    But Mathe(s) less famous than the dying Austrian words for vegetables, for example.

  5. Alon Reply | Permalink

    I would have thought I tend to say ‘maths’, but looking at my correspondence I seem to use ‘math’ as well, though less frequently. In my L1 (Spanish), I invariably go for the plural, though.

  6. Matt Becker Reply | Permalink

    I agree that "mathematics" is not plural but that doesn't mean it's necessarily singular. Singular/plural is a false dichotomoy. Rather, "mathematics" belongs to an intermediate class of English nouns called "mass nouns" (along with plenty of everyday nouns like "water", "gravel" and "love"). These have some aspects of both singular and plural: they take singular verb forms like "is" and "has", but use the plural form of the indefinite article "some" rather than "a/an". You wouldn't say "I'm off to study a mathematics" would you? Hence it's not singular.

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      That's a good point Matt. It's similar in German, where die Mathematik is also an uncountable noun. However in french it is definitely a plural. I wonder where the difference comes from...

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