Why “x”?

TerryMooreIf it’s in a TED talk, it’s got to be correct. Right?

Actually, not so much.

But when the talk is about both math and linguistics, how could I resist? So I just had to watch Terry Moore’s four-minute TED talk on “why is x the unknown?” You should watch it too.

[time to let you watch the talk]

Now that you’ve watched it — now that you know why we use the letter x to represent the unknown — let’s look at the incorrect info. We can start with the claim that “Arabic…turns out to be a supremely logical language.” Any linguist will tell you that that’s sheer nonsense. Every language is supremely logical, although the logic will vary from language to language.

But even if you accept Moore’s flawed premise, you must then wonder about his conclusion that “that’s one of the reasons so much of what we’ve come to think of as Western science and mathematics and engineering was really worked out in the first few centuries of the Common Era by the Persians and the Arabs and the Turks.” We have here three kinds of languages from three different language families — Farsi is Indo-European, Arabic is Semitic, and Turkish is of course Turkic — so why would the so-called logic of Arabic be relevant?

Then we get a more serious error. Moore claims that the Greek letter chi (χ) represents the “ck” sound. But it doesn’t! It represents the “ch” sound, as in the German “ach.” And supposedly that letter (close to “x”) was chosen in Latin because it looks like χ. Maybe.

Despite all this, the talk is entertaining…and almost informative.


Categories: Linguistics, Math