A Quick Language Lesson

So far, we’ve taken a look at maths from a conceptual standpoint but I want to take a small break to mention an interesting linguistic fact: the origin of the word Algebra.

English is famous for having more words than any other language, with the vast majority of them taken (sometimes forcibly! #imperialism) from other languages. Whenever I ask my students which language gave us, the most common answer I hear is ‘Latin!’ It’s understandable – Latin is the source for a ton of our words, especially all the high-status ones – but also totally wrong. After all, the Romans were terrible at theoretical maths – possibly because their numbering system was an utter trainwreck. ‘Greek’ is a better guess, but still incorrect: the Greeks invented Geometry (from ‘geometron’ – or ‘Earth-measuring’), so they got to name it, but it would be another 1000 years or so after Euclid until algebra was invented.

So who gave us Algebra, then? Here’s a hint: the same language that gave us words like alcohol, alchemy and admiral: Arabic! The word ‘algebra’ derives from the title of a treatise written by the great mathematician Muhammad Ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi around the year 820 CE: The Compendious Book of Calculation by Restoration and Balancing. ‘Al-Jabr’ means ‘rejoining’, and it’s central to how we should think about maths: by seeing an equation as equivalent to a balance, we can do the same thing to each side to simplify the work.

So why was al-Khwarizmi able to go where the Roman simply couldn’t? One possible explanation is that he had access to one of the greatest mathematical technologies to have ever been created: the ‘Arabic’ numeral system. But that’s a story for another blog post!

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