The History of the Math Symbols

It is sufficient to say that we are no strangers to the math symbols that have been taught from a young age. These symbols such as “+” or “-” have become so ingrained in our minds that it is almost like the letters of the alphabet. But have you ever wondered about why these symbols were made and how did the first person to invent them… invent them? 

To learn more about these fascinating mathematical symbols, here is a brief overview of the origins of some of the fundamental math symbols and their interesting stories!

Plus Sign (+), Minus Sign (-):

Unlike how we might imagine mathematical symbols to be invented from mathematics, the fundamental signs of + and – are actually derived from language. The plus sign (+) is often attributed to the German mathematician Johann Widmann. He introduced it in his book “Behende und hubsche Rechenung auff allen Kauffmanschafft” in 1489. It gained popularity as a symbol for addition because of its resemblance to the Latin word “et,” meaning “and”

Over time, the Latin “et”  evolved into the modern plus sign. (The evolution of the plus sign can be understood in the context of medieval manuscript practices. In handwritten manuscripts, it was common for scribes to abbreviate words or phrases to save time and space. The Latin word “et” was frequently used to connect items in a list, similar to how we use “and” in English). Simply put, scribes merged the letters ‘e’ and ‘t’ into a single character, often creating a ligature and that would come to be +. Eventually, it is used to represent addition and is one of the most fundamental symbols in mathematics. 

Similar to the plus sign, the minus sign is also derived from Latin. It evolved from the word “minus,” meaning “less” or “subtraction.” The symbol indicates subtraction in mathematical expressions. The use of the minus sign (-) is often credited to the Swiss mathematician Johann Rahn. He introduced the symbol in his book “Teutsche Algebra” in 1659. The symbol evolved from horizontal lines used in medieval manuscripts to represent subtraction.

Multiplication Sign (× or *):

Unlike the + and – that had relatively simple explanations, the multiplication sign has a varied history.

The multiplication sign (×) is believed to have originated as a shorthand for the Latin word “times.” It appeared in print in the early 17th century, and the symbol “×” may have evolved as a stylized form of the letter “x,” representing the Latin word for multiplication.

The “×” symbol gained prominence and became more standardized over time, especially with the increasing use of printing technologies. Printers often adapted existing symbols or created new ones for efficiency in typesetting. (which might be another explanation of how “x” came to be.) The visual simplicity and clarity of the “×” symbol made it well-suited for denoting multiplication, and it became widely accepted within the mathematical community.

In either circumstances, the evolution of mathematical symbols, including the multiplication sign, is a historical process influenced by the needs of mathematicians and the methods of communication of their time

Division Sign (÷):

Perhaps the most interesting among the fundamental symbol is the division sign. The division sign “÷,” also known as the obelus, has an interesting history that dates back to the 17th century. The symbol is attributed to Johann Rahn, a Swiss mathematician, who introduced it in his book “Teutsche Algebra” in 1659.

The word “obelus” comes from the Greek word “obelos,” meaning a sharpened stick or spit. In ancient manuscripts, scribes often used a horizontal line with dots above and below it to indicate division. Johann Rahn formalised and standardised this symbol, giving it the name “obelus” to represent division in mathematical expressions.

The “÷” symbol consists of two dots placed vertically above and below a horizontal line. The dots were originally used to represent the end points of a line segment, and the horizontal line indicated the division operation. The visual representation of a line with dots above and below it aligns with the concept of a fraction, with the dots representing the numerator and denominator. (Imagine a fraction for example, 2/4, with both ends replaced by ./. It would be the obelus or division instead!) 

Linguistics and Mathematics 

Both language and mathematics are systems of symbolic representation. The development of symbols, whether alphabets for language or mathematical notations for numbers and operations, involves creating a system of symbols to represent abstract concepts.

In essence, mathematical notations such as those represented above, enhance precision and ease of understanding, just as alphabets and words do in language. This is critical for clear transmission of ideas across different individuals, cultures, and time periods. Therefore, the most important lesson between this relation of language and mathematics is the effective notation in both fields to enhance communication and to continue the development and transmission of knowledge across generations.

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