Thursday, 2 February 2012

The numbers game

Can numbers carry social meaning?

Nikolas Coupland’s research suggests that they do. He used the Yahoo search engine to trawl through the worldwide web for numbers between one and one hundred, looking first for words (such as ninety-nine) and then for digits (such as 99). In both cases, there was a regular pattern of declining frequency of use with increasing size of numbers. Both twenty and 20 were more frequent than ninety or 90 – or even thirty or 30. Perhaps this is partly because it is easier to remember and understand small numbers, but cultural norms are also relevant. Coupland points out that we have developed ways of keeping numbers small by, for example, saying 10 minutes rather than 600 seconds, 10 pounds rather than 1000 pence, and even 4 billion rather than 4000 million. If we decide to use the larger forms, it is to make a rhetorical point.

Unexpectedly, the pattern of decreasing frequency with increasing size of the number turned out to be regular even within smaller sets of ten: 21 was more frequent than 22, 22 more frequent than 23, and so on, and this pattern was repeated within the 30s, the 40s, the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. What broke the pattern were the multiples of 10 (so, 30 was more frequent than 29) and, though to a lesser extent, the in-between numbers ending in 5. Other, more subtle, breaks in the pattern came from multiples of 6, numbers ending in 9, and ‘twin numbers’ like 44 or 99.

These patterns again reflect social and cultural factors. Whether or not the decimal number system originates in human biology (the number of our fingers or toes), there is now a naturalness about round numbers ending in 0 that makes them attractive when we don’t need to be precise. Numbers ending in 5 share something of the same quality. Multiples of six may also be culturally natural to us, featuring in boxes of eggs, bottles of wine or bags of bread rolls, but they have also been institutionalized as part of the measurement of angles in geometry, of longitude and latitude in navigation, and of the structuring of time into minutes and seconds.

The popularity of 99 on the web must be partly on commercial grounds, with prices such as 5.99 seeming more affordable than a price of 6.00. However this is not the only explanation. Coupland found that in the majority of cases 99 or Ninety-nine was used as a brand name. For example, a Ninety-nine card game was advertised, as was a Ninety-nine Bar and Kitchen and a book called Old Ninety-Nine’s Cave. Numbers such as 99 and 44, then, seem to have an aesthetic appeal. Even apparently neutral numbers are used more often than might be expected as brand names – seventeen, for instance, is a frequent brand name, though there seems no obvious reason why this should be more appealing than sixteen, say, or eighteen.

The study of numbers, then, raises interesting questions for students of language as well as for students of mathematics. Coupland’s study shows that it is well worth exploring the wider senses in which numbers do and do not ‘count’.

Coupland, Nikolas 2011. How frequent are numbers? Language and Communication 31: 27-37.
doi: 10.1016/j.langcom.2010.09.001

This summary was written by Jenny Cheshire

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