The Alan Sondheim Mail Archive

Of Speech As of Number

Number names in various languages (for example Japanese) alter in relation
to their quantified; '3 books' and '3 people' may have different words for
'3' altogether. In English, the number words are unary, however.

However, and this relates to issues of analog/digital (which I continue of
course to pursue), there are three 'speakings' of number, dependent on

1. 2118 = "two thousand, one hundred and eighteen" - indicative of
_quantity._ For example: "There are two thousand, one hundred and eighteen
bison on the island." Note the comma and connective may be omitted: "There
are two thousand one hundred eighteen bison on the island." Think of this
as the _indexical._

2. 2118 - "twenty-one eighteen" - indicative of date (within a serial /
linear construct). This is number as _sign._ For example: "In the year
twenty-one eighteen, all large mammals, except for humans, will either be
extinct or corralled." Note "twenty-one eighteen" is almost never written
out as such; the usual expression would be "In the year 2118, all large
mammals, except for humans, will either be extinct or corralled." Think of
this as the _symbolic._

3. 2118 - "two one one eight" - indicative of _identification_ For
example: "I live at two one one eight Western Boulevard, near the Monument
of Extinctions." Phone numbers and other identifications (credit card,
social security) are usually spoken in this fashion. Think of this as the

In ikonic identification, quantity and seriality are irrelevant. The
number is neither cardinal nor ordinal. In symbolic seriality,
identification is based on quantity, only in the sense that quantity
defines positionality; this is ordinal, not cardinal. In indexical
quantity, identification and seriality are weakened; the quantity of bison
(for the most part alone) is relevant. The number is cardinal.

I am stretching Peirce's notion of signs here. Nevertheless, there is some
hint of value on the horizon. Number trifurcates in the speaking; the
specificity of 3 portends the specificity of the discrete, for example.

What happens with decimals? Almost always, they are indicative of
quantity, although one can imagine an identification number of the form,
for example, "" - which would be read "twenty-one point two point
one point ninety-six." If the form is standard, one might eliminate the
"point" as in "twenty-one two one ninety-six." If the numbers are more
than two or three digits, for example "2134.9121.1." - the most likely
speaking would be "two one three four point nine one two one point one."
Telephone numbers of the form "(718)555-1235" are of this type, with the
punctuation omitted: "seven one eight [pause] five five five [pause] one
two three five."

There are exceptions to all of these; I am concerned, however, with a
general trend, at least in one language.


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