Linguistics, mathematics, and mysteries

“I make order out of chaos.” This is how an old friend whom I hadn’t seen in years explains her transition from linguistics to statistics, when people think it’s a complete change of field. It’s how she explains it to non-linguists, of course — as I already knew the connection. But the phrasing really resonates with me. I’ve described elsewhere how the search for patterns and abstract generalizations is what unites linguistics and math teaching in my mind, but I rather like the step up the ladder of abstraction implied by “I make order out of chaos.”

It also got me thinking about why I like the mystery and science fiction genres in popular fiction. My liking for science fiction is no mystery, so to speak: anyone with a mathematical bent is likely to enjoy the conventions of that genre. But what about mysteries? I’d been thinking about that lately, and it occurred to me that mystery writers also make order out of chaos: the unsolved crime is cognitively chaotic, and the solution creates order out of it. Furthermore, the puzzle that’s often involved bears definite kinship to the kinds of puzzles we solve in both math and linguistics. Just a thought…

Categories: Books, Linguistics, Math