Friday, May 18, 2012
Whimsical Thoughts About Words and Numbers
Letters and numbers are the two main ways that humans communicate. Most of us feel innately more comfortable with one or the other. Some lucky people have a natural affinity with both while others have not much ability with either.
If letters and numbers were political, letters would be the liberals of the communication world. Letters have that easy-going, “live and let live” attitude. They are equal opportunity symbols. Words don’t mind sharing their environment with other words. They have a generous immigration policy. They think diversity adds spice to a paragraph.
Words are tolerant about other lifestyles. Wholesome words co-exist happily with their more explicit cousins. Word communities are non-conformist, melding styles and eras. Colonial situated next to Gothic, French next to Spanish, forest green next to shocking pink. Sometimes words go off on tangents when they are under the influence of a mood-enhancing agent but other words shrug off this behavior.
Meanwhile, numbers live in gated communities, safe from the messy confusion generated by the words. Number neighborhoods dictate lot size and roof composition. Numbers are inherently conservative. They won’t tolerate deviance by even a thousandth. This is a caste system. Wherever you are born is where you will stay. A two can never hope to climb to a higher rank, say a nine (although they can, of course, achieve a certain amount of upward mobility by marrying a digit from a higher caste).
Numbers would be aghast at the very idea of numerical synonyms. There is no such thing in Number World as “means almost the same as”. What a sloppy way to think! Nothing like “almost the same as a five”. A five is a five is a five and that, my friend, is that.
Numbers have protected their heritage since the beginning of time and they see no reason to muddy the gene pool now. They find comfort in always knowing exactly where they stand. (I bet numbers hate the idea that there are a two, a to and a too).
Words are playful creatures, always evolving and reinventing themselves. The word that meant one thing last century means something completely different today. (Gay, for instance). In addition, completely new words are being born every year.
But numbers are the serious species. A two in the 1300’s is still the same as a two in the 21st century. I don’t know enough about the history of numbers to know when man first came up with them but I believe we utilize combinations of the same ten digits we always used. So far as I know, no new number has been created for eons. There are different types of systems, like Roman numerals, but the actual meaning of each number is the same, whatever symbol is used to represent it, so mathematicians can never mis-communicate, unlike linguists trying to match foreign words.
Of course, there are professions that try to wrestle words into the same rigid confines as numbers. I typed my son’s papers when he was getting his graduate degree in Psychology. The American Psychological Association has its very own method of grammar, punctuation and citation. Every word in a Psychology paper is exquisitely definition-specific. Every sentence is a section of stone wall, every word a granite boulder.
At the Sheriff’s Department, I also helped deputies, hoping to become instructors, type papers for the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy. Law enforcement is forced to use words although it actually feels more at one with numbers. As a result, the Academy demands adherence to a strict method of outlining, a technique I’d tried to forget since high school.
Since then, I’ve dealt mostly with legal papers, written in such complicated legalese that no one without a law degree could possibly hope to comprehend them (which is the point, I guess.)
All three of these styles are characterized by an unemotional, “just the facts, Ma’am”, philosophy.
I was always happy to slip back to my projects, where I was my own boss, able to throw words around with abandon, making up the rules as I went along, projecting joy or grief or nostalgia as I chose.
I believe that computers are beginning to shade the differences between words and numbers. Computer programs are written in a “language” but it is a language of numbers rather than words. Once numbers create the basic program, words take over. Kids who grow up with computers (and other electronic devices such as cell phones) seem naturally to understand this concept.
After all these centuries, this intermingling of communication species is allowing us to share information more quickly and effortlessly than ever before. I’m pretty sure words think this is a positive development. I’m not so sure about numbers.