Abstract Confusions

Complexity is not a cause of confusion. It is a result of it.

Tag Archives: Infinity

On Counting, Countability, Uncountability and Confusions thereof

The very basics of math skills are not taught by any one, it is inculcated from birth. In my childhood days, I remember how I got surprised by my grand mother’s mathematical (rather counting) skills. She was not taught in any school, she has to manage the household stuff, few farm works. She could never read a word, but still she could precisely count the number of coconuts, add subtract multiply or tally the rupee notes and settle the account. Counting is something that comes naturally to one. In fact I read some where, counting is not exclusive to humans, birds like crows can count till five. Another news item claims chimpanzees can even count better than humans.

Asian Advantage in Counting

Another article even attributes geographical / language factors for mastering the mathematical ability of remembering number. If you haven’t read it, here is the summary: the article advocates the certain languages (Asian in this case) have inbuilt advantage in manipulating numbers in mind. Because, the words for the numbers are smaller and easy to store, retrieve, manipulate.

Chinese number words are remarkably brief. Most of them can be uttered in less than one-quarter of a second (for instance, 4 is ‘si’ and 7 ‘qi’) Their English equivalents—”four,” “seven”—are longer: pronouncing them takes about one-third of a second. The memory gap between English and Chinese apparently is entirely due to this difference in length. In languages as diverse as Welsh, Arabic, Chinese, English and Hebrew, there is a reproducible correlation between the time required to pronounce numbers in a given language and the memory span of its speakers. In this domain, the prize for efficacy goes to the Cantonese dialect of Chinese, whose brevity grants residents of Hong Kong a rocketing memory span of about 10 digits.

It could not help me but to compare this with the counting in my mother tongue Tamil.  In English, we have to count fourteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen and nineteen, so one would think that we would also say one-teen, two-teen, and three-teen. Not the case. It is little bit in a different form: eleven, twelve, thirteen, and fifteen. Compare that to Tamil counting, 11 is pathinoonnu (பதினொன்று or pathu+one; ten+one), 18 is pathinnettu (பதின்னெட்டு or pathu+ettu; ten+eight). Read more of this post