Archive for September, 2009

Words and numbers: Aristotle and Ifrah

September 30, 2009

I have been playing with some time-lines, working on a 11×17 sheet that ranged through the last 10,000 years. It occurred to me to show on this graph the time periods covered by some books I have been reading lately. That is, to show the range of time that each book covered. My immediate reading was  The Trial of Socrates: I F Stone, but the first book I lined out on the graph was The Horse, the Wheel and Language: David Anthony. Then I tried to put on one of my favorites,  The Universal History of Numbers: Georges Ifrah, but it turns out that people have been symbolizing numbers a lot longer than we have been symbolizing word-sounds, so that I could not put them on the same graph.

The first recorded numbers were notches on sticks. The first written numbers were quite possibly words, rather than number symbols, which, in turn were quite possibly also the first words. Since that time, words and numbers have drifted apart into their own academic departments. Too bad!

According to Ifrah, the Brahmins who shepherded the number system that became ours across the threshold from oral to literate cultures asserted that the numbers had no history. They were simply given to the Brahmins by the gods. Plato said much the same thing about the spoken language as he and the other Greeks accomplished the same task for the spoken language.

We can follow the history of numbers through the mysteries of e, i, pi, 0 and -1. But what about the history of language development? By the time 2400 years ago when Aristotle recorded the rules of grammar, logic and rhetoric, the spoken language had been evolving for perhaps 800,000 years. Most of us ordinary people are still laboring to catch up with Aristotle.

Only in the time since then we have been able to look at written math symbols, apply logic to their manipulation, invent algorithms and equations like Euler’s.

Before venturing into some philosophical exploration of the meaning of all that one should recognize that natural selection did not produce these linguistic goodies for the sake of philosophy. Rather, there was some practical problem that they resolved in some way. And the resolution of practical problems only has to reach the standard of practicality. They don’t have to be “The Truth”.

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