The not-so-universal language of mathematics
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.
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?
- Youtube: Numberphile
- Twitter: @numberphile
- The channel is run by Brady Haran, who also has several other educational channels.
More Lynne Murphy:
- Blog: Separated by a common language, including a specific post on the topic of "math(s)".
- Twitter @lynneguist
- TEDxSussexUniversity talk on American and British politeness.