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Using the language of mathematics, state and prove that mathematics is a language

  1. Jul 9, 2006 #1
    In the old days (i.e. just a few decades ago) candidates had to know a foreign language in order to become a PhD. Very sly students, like my macroeconomics professor, were able to maneuver through this requirement by convincing their superiors that mathematics is a language. :bugeye:

    Until I heard that story, I didn't know the idea was taken that seriously. Actually, I have never heard a mathematician or scientist argue otherwise. A quick Google search for the phrase "mathematics is not a language" as of this date returns a paltry 26 results, and even some of those are conditional. The opposite and more familiar statement returns 14,500 results.

    Saying that mathematics is a language sounds all nice and poetic, and it's possible for one to wax philosophically on the subject, but I'm not looking for philosophy or poetry here. Please no philosophizing in this thread. This is the math section. I'm looking for a mathematical argument showing that mathematics is a language.

    After all, if the proposition is true, then shouldn't it be possible to use mathematics to prove it? If it's not true, can we use mathematics to disprove it?

    Even if one could show that it couldn't be proved or disproved, one should still be able to state the proposition mathematically. Has that ever been done?

    I have never seen that little. Until the statement is formalized, I'm afraid the idea is pseudo-mathematics.

    Remember, please no philosophizing. Conjecture or postulate instead, if you must. I just request that you make it a mathematical argument.
    Last edited: Jul 9, 2006
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 9, 2006 #2
    i guess then the question someone would pose to u first is what your definition of a language is...since There is a math field called Language THeory(or cs field to some)
  4. Jul 10, 2006 #3


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    Every now and again, someone will propose allowing "computer languages" as a "language" option, bringing the wrath of the liberal arts faculty down on their heads!

    (What do you mean "in the old days". As far as I know, any decent Ph.D. program requires two foreign languages today.)
  5. Jul 10, 2006 #4


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    Why? :confused:
  6. Jul 10, 2006 #5


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    Not all mathematics is done in English (or whatever your native tongue is).:tongue2: Some departments language requirements are based solely on the ability to translate mathematical documents, no conversational skills required.

    These requriements are definitely vanishing at some schools, or more and more phd programs are falling from HallsofIvy's "decent" category (like mine is, which requires no foreign language).
  7. Jul 10, 2006 #6
    Well, define 'language', and we'll see if mathematics fits.
  8. Jul 10, 2006 #7
    Are you asking for its English definition? If so, that's unacceptable. There must be a precise mathematical definition of language so that a proposition containing it as a mathematical object can have some rigor.

    Maybe it is a set or class of objects? Or could it be that there is only one language and mathematics is in a set of its own? :wink:
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2006
  9. Jul 10, 2006 #8
    Results of a Google search: define:language.

    The 2nd definition seems reasonable in the context of a relationship to Mathematics.
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2006
  10. Jul 11, 2006 #9
    MIckey: your question is still unclear to me because you must define what your defintion of language is?

    Unless the question you ask is whether Mathematics considers its symbolic/formalistic Structure a Language in mathematics. The answer would be yes because of the field of Language theory(sometimes a subtopic in Computability books).
  11. Jul 12, 2006 #10


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    The only research which I've come across that's needed translation is that done in Russian.

    People can spend careers translating Russian texts to English - after all, they did do everything first!

    Also helps that a lot of former Soviets work in the West now.

    I see no reason why a 'decent' PhD 'program' would include learning another language.
  12. Jul 12, 2006 #11
    Okay, that sounds reasonable. But, as far as I can tell, you said it in English.

    Can you please say it again in the language of mathematics?
  13. Jul 12, 2006 #12


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    It depends on your field, where the main contributors publish and so on. I've had to stumble through a few French articles myself.

    I don't think it's a bad thing to include to give some practice in not being afraid of foreign papers. The exams I've heard of are usually written translation exams given a dictionary, so it is pratical stuff that many mathematicians will find handy at some point. It's not asking directions to the cinema or grocery lists.
  14. Jul 12, 2006 #13


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    if you think you never need another language other than english in math, try reading galois' original work, or riemanns complete works (partially available now in english after 150 years).

    not all interesting research is that being done now. and what is being done now should ideally not duplicate what has already been done. thats why we have research libraries. i myself submitted a solved problem for a thesis until it was pointed out hurwitz had already done it, in german, in the 1800's.

    and my ultimate thesis problem was an answer to a question posed in german by wirtinger in 1895, but not answered then.

    since the best way to understand any work is to read the authors version, you are dependent on either translations or ability to read the original language. besides, when you go there for a conference, it is rude and less effective to order dinner and wine in english. one always needs the local language to feel comfortable and make ones hosts feel so.

    but my department too is weakening the language standard regularly until now it has almost disappeared. some foreign students who get credit for their own native tongue as a foreign language, have found it difficult to find time from their math studies even to learn fluent english.
    Last edited: Jul 12, 2006
  15. Jul 12, 2006 #14


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    but mathematics is clearly not a language, even if it has its own vocabulary, anymore than plumbing is a language. every subject has its own vocabulary and special definitions.
  16. Jul 13, 2006 #15
    from a shop floor perspective Mathwonk and others of similar
    opinion rings all too true. Try working with Japanese, French
    Germans and British, along with Texas engineers who don't
    understand PID drawings they submitted which are supposed
    to drive a UV water purification system for a state of the art
    IBM chip plant. Japanese are upset, French are perplexed and
    German dude asks "what is wrong with [US]? - you used to set the
    standard." Two electricians, one American, one Canadian
    somehow muddled through thanks to what languages we could
    remember from school/traveling/military service. The Canadian's
    language skills better than the American's (oldelectrician), and to
    the amazement of many turned more than a few disasters into
    more work for our employer - Both Japanese and French companies'
    engineers were appreciative of our efforts to communicate - a
    Berlitz book in the tool box. Learn a language - the math/science vocab,
    which indeed is a universal, only goes so far --and one may be suprised
    at one has been missing once even a little bit of skill has been obtained -
    After all, someone may be saying to the person next to him that you
    are going off a cliff and there you stand oblivious with a smile on your
    face. The engineering company reps from Texas, replete with attitude, an example - ended up being asked to leave the project.
  17. Jul 13, 2006 #16
    Out of curiosity mathwonk, were those thesis problems?
  18. Jul 13, 2006 #17
    Learning foreign languages should most definitely be a requirement of a Ph.D. Mathematics is now done on international levels and we shouldn't expect everyone else to learn our language. Why not take some time and learn the language (and culture) of your peers?
  19. Jul 15, 2006 #18
    It seems like mathematicians who refer to mathematics as a language aren't thinking like mathematicians.

    I find it very confusing and a little unsettling to hear academic authority figures, the people teaching mathematics and languages, say that mathematics is a language to people who initially don't know much about mathematics and language, when it looks so patently untrue, and not back it up.

    I await those who espouse the notion to use mathematics to simply state the notion. ;)
    Last edited: Jul 15, 2006
  20. Jul 15, 2006 #19


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    Sure mathematics is a language, a specialized one. It is an effective method for conveying certain messages, which is all a language needs to be. But this is only a quibble over semantics, because your real question is whether it is a reasonable substitute for a foreign natural language like German, which it is not.
    Last edited: Jul 15, 2006
  21. Jul 15, 2006 #20


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    when i shop i ask each cashier how to say thank you in her/his language. each has his own, and it is very tricky to match them, but when they do it is amgic. amharic, somali, vietnamese, polish, german, russian, spanish, french, italian..all have a different verbal button that makes them smile.

    once walking down the stret with long hair and beard, some italian construction workers made fun of me so i shouted "buon giorno!" and they all smiled and shouted back friendly greetings.
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