by Alex Autin

Which is it? Math? Or Maths?

The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language. – George Bernard Shaw

We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language. – Oscar Wilde

The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.James D. Nicoll

Having spent time living in English speaking countries other than the United States, I’m fascinated by not only the different pronunciation of English words from country to country, but also by the unique usage and spellings of words. Aluminum vs Aluminium is one of my favorites. (For an interesting read on the naming of Element 13 check out this explanation by Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D..)

Another common difference between U.S. English and the rest of the entire English speaking world is Math vs Maths. Which is correct? Is one any more correct than the other? For an answer, lets hear what Dr Lynne Murphy, an American linguist living in Britain, has to say.

Video courtesy of Numberphile, who’s awesome YouTube channel can be found here.

So which is it for you? Math? Or Maths? And did Dr Murphy’s explanation change your opinion in any way? For me, as an American, I would find it awkward, and more than a bit pretentious, to say Maths. Though I will admit some small delight in saying Aluminium. ;)

And for a somewhat more eloquent illustration of American English vs British English, lets turn to the British, and absolutely brilliant comedian, Eddie Izzard, from his 1998  performance of Dress To Kill, in San Fransisco, CA.

Of course, this doesn’t explain that whole ‘ello vs hello thing….

35 responses

  1. Until I get a cool British or Australian accent I’m sticking with “math”. Alas, as a Texan the accent will never happen (sadly). Of course, when I’m working on really difficult math problems, I refer to it as something far more explicit but we’ll keep it clean here. :) Great post Alex!

    July 11, 2013 at 9:52 am

    • Thanks Jason, and I agree with you completely (especially concerning the explicit terms!). And by the way, that Texas accent is one of my favorites!

      July 11, 2013 at 10:09 am

  2. I can’t tell you how grating “Math” sounds over here. I comes across as half a word to rhyme with “Moth”.

    July 11, 2013 at 10:57 am

    • You just did two things – you made me say the word ‘moth’ out loud, then you made me laugh, yes, also out loud. :)

      July 12, 2013 at 6:15 am

  3. LOL I love that Nicoll quote… being English, I always said Maths… but since I emigrated to the US, I’ve had to make a conscious effort to simply say Math… otherwise I get the all-too-common blank “wtf” stares….

    July 11, 2013 at 11:34 pm

    • I like that Nicoll quote as well Richard, and I don’t even know what a cribhouse whore is. :) And I know, all too well, that ‘wtf’ stare from my time living in Australia. My use of ‘American’ English was only the tip of that iceberg. (I think my neighbors got their morning laugh by watching me walk out of the house and, without thinking, walking to the wrong side of the car.)

      July 12, 2013 at 6:26 am

      • Oh, I still do that now LOL I’ll wander out of work, my mind all over the place, and absently go to the wrong side… it’s only been 9 years, after all LOL

        July 12, 2013 at 9:12 pm

        • LOL! Ok then I don’t feel so silly about only doing it for a year. :D

          July 13, 2013 at 6:15 am

  4. Good Morning Alex!

    First of all, I didn’t realize the math-maths debate, so the first video was fascinating … but the second one was a great hoot for the morning. In the end, an outstanding post!

    July 12, 2013 at 5:16 am

    • Morning Frank, and thanks! I find that Eddie Izzard is a great hoot any time of the day. :D

      July 12, 2013 at 6:27 am

  5. Maths for me. I used this word all while growing up and it has been a bit strange hearing (and trying to remember to use) the word “Math” since I have been here in Toronto.

    July 12, 2013 at 9:13 am

    • I was wondering which was used in Canada, and now I know. (I was fairly certain ‘Maths’ was used in South Africa.)

      Thanks Colline!

      July 12, 2013 at 9:19 am

      • In South Africa a lot of expressions we use are the same as in Britain . I could give a list of words that Canadians/Americans would not understand. Even though I am an English speaker, I have had to learn a new vocabulary. :)

        July 12, 2013 at 9:22 am

        • I know exactly what you mean Colline concerning vocabulary. Learning to speak “Australian’ was fairly easy. Learning to speak ‘Jamaican’, however, took much longer for me.

          July 12, 2013 at 10:27 am

  6. I can go either way with the math or maths choice – the video was very interesting though.
    However, I am definitely an aluminium man, the other one is just wrong. In fact there isn’t even any consistency in the way ‘aluminum’ is pronounced, the first ‘u’ is pronounced as in ‘loom’ but the second ‘u’ as in ‘numb’ – how’s a body to cope with that???

    July 12, 2013 at 12:01 pm

    • There’s no question that aluminium is fun to say. I can’t seem to work my mouth around ‘maths’ though. Something about the th followed by the s which just feels wrong…and completely unnecessary. :D

      July 13, 2013 at 6:22 am

      • It might help if you had a lisp :)

        July 13, 2013 at 8:55 am

  7. Maths for me…

    I had a maths teacher who told the class that anyone who dared say math to him would get detention. It had to be maths or mathematics…guess he felt pretty strongly about the whole thing, for some reason! :)

    July 12, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    • Math (or Maths!) teachers should ALWAYS feel strongly about the whole thing.

      July 13, 2013 at 5:13 am

  8. Well, this sort of like the Pluto thing for me. I have a personal preference (which may fly in the face of logic, rationality and/or good taste), but I’ve got no dog in the hunt regarding what is correct or what other people choose. And in this case there doesn’t seem a correct vs incorrect version.

    I like maths. I’ve picked it up from interacting a lot with people from India and other non-USAnian parts. I like the sound of it. And as the video points out, mathematics was once considered a plural. Even though the word maths isn’t actually a plural, it hints at that plural past. And I have a sense of mathematics being plural, so it just seems right.

    But people can call it ‘Rithmatic for all I care! :)

    July 12, 2013 at 7:10 pm

    • I think you’re right, WS, in that there is no correct pronunciation. I do like hearing ‘maths’, though I can’t quiet bring myself to say it with a straight face. (I mean not actually in front of others.)

      July 15, 2013 at 4:25 am

  9. I’m sticking with the Math way. In a speech at the Democratic convention this year, I like the way Bill Clinton used neither. Instead, he said Arithmetic in order to focus on the common. Smart move.

    July 13, 2013 at 7:56 am

  10. I’m going with Math…I can’t do it…but I’m still going to SAY it…Math….there, I said it and I’ll say it again! Math! Don’t play your mind games on me Alex….I wear a pink tutu…you can’t mess with the mind of someone wearing a pink tutu…crap… all I can think of is “Maths”….you got into my brain…

    July 13, 2013 at 7:50 pm

    • I’m reasonably certain, Suzanne, that a person wearing a pink tutu can do just about anything. I think you’ve proven that. ;)

      July 15, 2013 at 4:28 am

      • :) :) :) :) :) :) :)

        July 15, 2013 at 6:55 am

  11. whiteladyinthehood

    I say Math. I also say Herbs with the ‘H’ pronounced…..go figure! :)

    July 14, 2013 at 7:54 am

    • I could never figure out if herb was pronounced with, or without, the H. (Unless it was the name ‘Herb’.)

      July 15, 2013 at 5:30 am

  12. Sadly, no matter how it’s pronounced, I’m still not that good at it.

    Can’t go wrong with Eddie Izzard!

    July 14, 2013 at 9:49 am

    • Practice, practice, practice Guapo. ;)

      And I ADORE Eddie Izzard!

      July 15, 2013 at 5:31 am

    • I like Eddie Izzard, too. I like that I don’t get all the jokes right away. Sometimes they take work, and I appreciate that.

      August 29, 2013 at 12:29 pm

  13. Being the American exceptionalist I am, I say “Math Now, Math Forever!”

    In all seriousness, I enjoy the differences in British speech. The “H” in herb isn’t silent!

    August 29, 2013 at 12:28 pm

    • Just watched the video. “Because there’s a fucking aitch in it!”

      August 29, 2013 at 12:31 pm

  14. I say Maths of course, being British ! I do love Eddie Izzard. We were lucky enough to see him live in San Francisco and he is hilarious, with an h! An erb is the way the English used to pronounce herb, as they also used to say an otel; it’s just that we have put the h back and those who left many years ago took and kept the old way of saying these words. We no longer call Autumn the Fall as you do but we used to…. We are actually going over the pond very soon to see the Fall in New England! Wow!

    I love language and its history as much as you love Space!
    All the best :)

    September 17, 2013 at 3:17 pm

    • I’ll admit to being a big fan of languages as well, Sally. I find it very interesting, but don’t really take a hard stand on spellings or pronunciations. And now I have even more reasons to be envious of you – Eddie Izzard and the New England fall; I’ve seen neither in person. I know you’ll have a great visit!

      September 17, 2013 at 3:30 pm

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