Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles -Math. DAVE BROWN: Maths-type stuff. -Do the math for me. -This is the story of maths. VI HART: Say you're me in your math class. -Science without maths. DR. LYNNE MURPHY: Emotions run high how about maths versus math. If you're an American living in Britain, you will have been corrected a lot and told things like, what's wrong with you Americans? Don't you realize that there's an S on the end of mathematics, so you need an S on the end of math. BRADY HARAN: You are an American living in Britain. DR. LYNNE MURPHY: I am an American living in Britain. BRADY HARAN: Tell me about how much problem this causes you. DR. LYNNE MURPHY: Well, I mean, it's enough that I now say maths, because I don't want to have an argument. Well, it's only in the 19th century that people started abbreviating mathematics. And at that point, the first known use of math is from 1847. That's what the "Oxford English Dictionary" has recorded. There, you know, people are using it with a full stop-- or a period, as we Americans say. And there's not a lot of evidence there that people were actually saying it. It looks like it started out as an abbreviation in writing and not an abbreviation in speech. So that starts around 1847. It's not until 1911 that we see maths with an S. And again, it looks like people weren't probably saying it then. They were probably just writing it in course catalogs and things like. English people will say to me, there's an S on the end of mathematics, so you need to put the S on the end of maths-- which I counter, but we don't put the last letter from other abbreviations onto the end of those abbreviations. So when you say fax instead of facsimile, you don't say facsie, just because there's an E on the end of fax. So that argument that you should put the last letter onto an abbreviation, I don't quite understand. Except that a lot of people say this because they believe that mathematics is plural. And so you have to use the S to mark the plural in mathematics on maths. The problem with that is that mathematics isn't plural. You don't say there are two mathematics that I need to look at. And when you make maths or mathematics agree with a verb, you make it agree with a singular verb, not a plural one. So you don't say mathematics are interesting. You say maths is interesting. So there's plenty of linguistic evidence that that's a singular. But people see the S and think, if there's an S on the end of a noun, it must be plural. BRADY HARAN: Does that mean Americans have this deeper understanding of what constitutes plural? DR. LYNNE MURPHY: No, I don't think so. I think it's that-- and I don't think, necessarily, that British people put the S on the end because they did think it was plural. It was the habit that was got into, probably because it was first a written form. And in written forms, you might abbreviate things all sorts of ways. But once they saw the S, they interpreted it as plural. So this is what we call a folk etymology. You see something with a form that looks familiar, and you assume it has that form for a reason. And so people are always looking for reasons why their form of the languages is more logical than the other. And the problem is that language on the vocabulary level doesn't follow logic. Vocabulary is just, anything goes. BRADY HARAN: Which is ironic when you're discussing mathematics, which is so the opposite. DR. LYNNE MURPHY: [LAUGHTER] Yeah, absolutely. One cat is fluffy. Two cats are fluffy. So in English, we mark the number in a sentence in various places. We can do it with a numeral. We can do it with a plural suffix. And we do it on the verb. So math is fun. The question comes, when you've got that S there, what are you going to put here? Is this S telling you that it's plural or not? And the fact of the matter is, people say maths is fun. They don't say maths are fun. In linguistics, when things are wrong, we put a star in front of them, an asterisk, to signal that. So that's kind of-- BRADY HARAN: That's the smoking gun. DR. LYNNE MURPHY: That's the smoking gun. You don't have one mathematic, two mathematics. BRADY HARAN: I now believe you that it's not plural. Why do we have an S on the end of mathematics? DR. LYNNE MURPHY: OK. Well, it's a long story, starting in Greek-- which doesn't have an S on the end of mathematics, but it did have an A, which was the plural ending there. BRADY HARAN: So that was mathematika. DR. LYNNE MURPHY: Mathematika. So that A there was taking an adjective for mathematic and making it into a noun. So the way to make an adjective into a noun in Greek was to add this A, which was a plural marker. So what it meant was all the mathy stuff, right? So all the mathematical stuff. And so you get that in physics, you get that in linguistics, you get that in all of these sort of Greek-rooted studies of meanings. BRADY HARAN: What, the A became an S, did it? DR. LYNNE MURPHY: So the A became an S in English because the people who were taking these words from Greek knew enough Greek to know that was the plural. Brought the plural into English. But then it evolved away from the plural very quickly in English, because we weren't treating it as meaning all the things to do with X. We were treating it as meaning, the study of X, which is a more singular meaning. Well, the thing about language is people get very nationalistic about these things. Your language is a huge part of your identity. If somebody else says something a different way, you want to believe that the way you say it is right. I've been confronted about people who are angry when people say, "you do the math" instead of "you do the maths," as an expression. And I think that's kind of rich, because I believe the original was American, and it was originally "you do the math." But yeah, I'm not sure why this one exercises people so much. Maybe because it is more of a scientific group who's worried about it, or because you think that since mathematics is precise, the word for it should be standardized. I'm not sure. Aluminium versus aluminum is the other one that really, really gets people. So that sort of goes along with that hypothesis that it's the scientific ones that really rankle. -I don't know about Americans in general, but I can say that for me, when I moved to London, I was really thrown by the double numbers thing for quite a while.