Humans are horrible at “simple arithmetic”. Compared to a computer we just really, really suck when it comes to adding or multiplying large numbers.

But when it comes to understanding language we kick the computer’s ass.

Now I wonder how much re-wiring we could do in our brain if we developed a language built on arithmetic. As I see it, the main reason why we are so good at dealing with language is that we need it to communicate, and that we use it so much in our life. When we are little babies our parents always talk to us, but they don’t compute square roots for us.

What if our language was such that to build a simple sentence you would have to add or multiply numbers. Maybe to ask for the direction to the train station you would have to compute the approximate square root of 1,592. What if we were constantly exposed to arithmetic. How much better would the average person be at multiplying two 4-digit numbers in their head?

Maybe for most purposes and approximation would be good enough, just as there is no “correct” or “wrong” understanding of most sentences. The “understanding” ultimately consists of the associations and the feelings the phrase generates in you. This is also not a “true” or “false” issue. But if the approximation you compute is too far off, then you’d be misunderstood and you would not be asking for the way to the train station, but you’d be explaining that your hovercraft is full of eels. (If you want to know how to say “My hovercraft is full of eels.” in 99 languages, then check out this site.)

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