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Linear Algrebra for Linguists

Tags: physics intro units vectors math

A common complaint about mathematics is that it just doesn’t seem useful. After all, early math courses are often dedicated to simply pushing numbers around. There are very few people whose lives involve pushing numbers around, so it seems like a big waste of time. Word problems are often given as ways to make the math seem practical, but those word problems are often window dressing around the same number pushing.

This is unfortunate, because math is about numbers in the same way that ovens are about reheating frozen pizzas. It’s about the easiest thing that you can do, but, if that’s all that you’re doing, you’ve missed out on most of the good bits.

Inspired by a recent post by Indiana’s Teacher of the Year1, I’m going to try to explain linear algebra through the idea of translating foreign texts.

We’ll start by taking a word which you wish to translate.


Notice the | and > around the word? I’m using Dirac’s bra-ket2 notation. Anything with a | at the front and a > at the back is a word that we want to translate. This is a ket.

Now, what about possible translations?


If something with a | at the start and a > at the end is a ket, then something with a < at the front and a | at the end you might guess to be a bra. Your guess would be right. A person snickering at the word bra you might guess to be twelve years old.

Now, what if we combine the two together?


When you combine a bra and a ket, you get what we call an inner-product. You can think of an inner-product as a measure of how well two things match up. So <mind|animus> is probably pretty big, since they match up well, while <cerebellum|animus> is pretty small. The biggest possible value that you can get is <animus|animus>, since everything means the same things as itself.

While there’s nothing bigger than <animus|animus>, there’s nothing smaller that <pogo stick|animus>. That’s not to say that there aren’t any other translations that are just as bad.

<pogo stick|animus> = <Cleveland|animus> = <lepidiota bettle|animus>

When two words have absolutely nothing in common, we say that they are orthogonal. This won’t come up again in this post, but I may need the idea again in a later one.

Enter the Matrix

Somewhere, there’s a smart-alec reader who will pretend that, back when I said that we were going to combine the bra and ket, that she thought that I was going to write


First, you didn’t think that I was going to combine them that way. Besides the fact that it’s bra-ket notation, so the bra obviously goes first, there’s also the fact that <mind|animus> looks like a UFO, which makes it more awesome than |animus><mind|, which just looks like a twisted ribbon.

Still, because I’m a bigger smart-alec than she is, I’m going to point out that |animus><mind| is an actual thing, called an outer-product. These are often represented by matrices, which are just big tables of numbers. But we’re not doing numbers in this articles. I wish that we were - there are a couple of things that’s be easier if I could put in a number. But I said that I was going to do this without numbers, so we’ll just move on.

Outer-products are also known as operators, as they can be used to change what we’re looking at. We’ll start with the easiest operator - the identity operator.

ID = ∑ |word><word|

The big sigma3 is just an easy way of writing “add up all the things”. I could have just as easily written

ID = |mind><mind| + |carrot><carrot| + |cotinga><cotinga| + |ladle><ladle| + ⋯

The idea is that ID has the outer product of every word with itself. So, if you use the operator on any word, you get the same thing back again. for instance

ID|cat> = |cat>

To give a more interesting example, we’ll make the Elmer Fudd4 operator.

Fudd = ID - |rabbit><rabbit| + |wabbit><rabbit|

We can then use the operator Fudd operator on some words.

Fudd(|I'll> + |get> + |that> + |rabbit>)
= |I'll> + |get> + |that> + |wabbit>

You can think of this as a kind of translation, from English into Fudd. We can then extend this idea into a more useful kind of translation. We’re going to make a matrix called E which is similar to identity, except that it only has words in English.

E = ∑ |English word><English word|

This simple little operator takes a phrase in any language and returns every possible translation into English, weighted by the quality of the translation. For instance, imagine that our word is animus again. Using the operator on the |animus> ket gives us:

E |animus> = ∑ |English word><English word|animus>

From what we know about inner products, we know that the <English word|animus> part tells us how well each word translates |animus>. That part is then multiplied by the actual word vector, to give us the weighted vector.

We’ll stop here for right now. Translating every language that exists or ever will exist with a single line of algebra is probably enough for one blog post. My next post will continue with this to explain some more advanced concepts, like eigenvectors, and how they relate to goofy toys like translationparty.com.


  1. Incidentally, Magister Perkins is also my old high school Latin teacher and scholar of the highest order.

  2. This is what happens when you let physicists name things.

  3. Don’t complain about my using the greek alphabet. I said that this was going to be for linguists. If the physicist is comfortable with it, you should be, too.

  4. I spent much of my childhood with a speech impediment that hampered my ability to pronounce the letter R. Some individuals likened it to sounding like Elmer Fudd.