Like Calculus

2+4*5 = ?

It’s 22, not 30. Because calculus, as we learned in school, follows BEDMAS (or some similar acronym). Brackets, Exponents, Division, Multiplication, Addition, Subtraction. It doesn’t matter what order they appear on the page; it’s the function that’s important.

In that respect translation is like calculus. And if you can get past the stigma of using mathematics as an analogy for anything, it’s a useful way to think about it.

In English, like German, we rely on word order – on where things are – to tell us what they mean. But this only gets us so far. After all, we can change the order of some things in English without changing the meaning:

The woman lives nearby.
Nearby, the woman lives.
Nearby lives the woman.

Or alternatively, word order can be no help in discerning meaning:*

Turn right here.
We saw her duck.
They are hunting dogs.

Clearly placement alone isn’t reliable as a key to understanding, even in English – and English isn’t a very highly inflected language. The whole joy of languages like Latin and Greek is the flexibility of word order, allowing an author to create contrasts and emphases without endangering their essential meaning.

It’s not where the words are, but what they’re doing that’s important. 

Keeping this in mind allows you to sort through a sentence to the pieces which form its whole, dealing with it function by function instead of a sludge of disconnected words. It has helped me even in languages, like Egyptian, in which word placement has a very prominent role. The idea can be phrased another way, more bluntly and more suitable for muttering under your breath:

Never trust word order. 

If only the key to it all was as easy to remember as BEDMAS.


The featured image is a rather optimistic bust of Virgil from Italy. It is from many hours spent with Virgil’s poems that I learned that one can never, ever depend on word order.

*These examples from Wikipedia.



2 responses to “Like Calculus

  1. As someone who learned French (in Canada) up to grade 9 or age 15, did degrees in mathematics and statistics and learned Intro. German as electives, I can agree that learning languages is similar to learning mathematics/calculus.

    Lots of work has to be put in to understand and memorize topics. Order for the most part matters as well as context. Learning languages and mathematics takes a lot of time and repetition!

    • Great point about memorization and repetition! I didn’t even think of that parallel.
      All the formulae in maths remind me of the different sets of grammatical rules, too.

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