Algebra Continued- Moving from words to symbols

The Greeks and Egyptians only used words to discuss mathematical situations. Mathematical symbols like the ones we are familiar with- symbols like +, - and =, - weren't invented yet. It actually took a very very long time for any mathematicians to come up with the idea of using symbols to represent mathematical relations and operations. For literally thousands of years, mathematicians just wrote all of their math out in words. For example, to talk about division they would write statements like "six items divided into two equal groups will give you two smaller groups of three items each".

It wasn't until roughly 400 years ago in Europe that mathematicians started to develop ways to write their math in a short hand of symbols and equations rather than in words.

This development was both good and bad. It was good in the sense that it made it much easier for mathematicians to write complicated ideas in a relatively short, concise and precise way. This in turn led to new developments in math and entirely new ways of doing and thinking about math.

It was bad because it made reading math much more challenging, and not just for people learning mathematical concepts. Even experienced mathematicians and scientists can take a while to sort through and translate the meaning of a complicated mathematical equation.

Nonetheless, it's important to remember that all mathematical equations can be translated back into words, which can then be explained in Inuktitut, French, English or another language. It just may take some time and patience to do this, and a willingness to find out what mathematical concept each symbol represents.

So remember- if you find yourself facing a mathemtical symbol that you don't recognize, remember that you can ask someone to change the symbol back into a word and then get someone to translate this mathematical word into other words that are understandable. Don't be afraid to ask.

 

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Copyright Jen Schellinck, 2006