A History of Infinity

Language is a phenomenon that arrives at any given state through constant transitions that are the result of multitudes of specific causes. More specifically, there are cultural changes, intellectual shifts, conquest, and a host of other destructive and constructive events that shape the language over centuries, assuming it survives at all. Modern English is one such language being a compilation of multiple languages, with a particularly Indo-European base, being a part of the Indo-European family of languages. In deconstructing the conception of English and analyzing its progression, particular words are introduced and many of them are adopted and become an integral part of the language. Infinity is a word that has a brief inception into English as opposed to other words, like window that have distinctly richer histories; however, infinity has its uses that are critical in the language. By analyzing the historical lineage of the word infinity, its importance and various applications can be determined.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines infinity as “The quality or attribute of being or having no limit; boundlessness, illimitableness (esp. as an attribute of Deity)” (Oxford, Infinity). The word has a lineage that goes back from English through French and finally to Latin. The French word for the modern English infinity is infinité and the original Latin is infinitas. Discussing particular moments, like the three periods of borrowing and the Norman Conquest, in relation to the history of English gives clarity as to how infinity led into English.

There are three periods of borrowing in the history of the English language that are used to categorize the changes in the language over time. There is the Zero period which is characterized by continental borrowing, the First period, dealing primarily with the interactions of the Roman Empire with the Celts, who later fed words into English, and finally, the Second period is characterized by the Christianizing of Britain. Each of these periods provides a lens to more readily conceptualize how English shifted in terms of conception, from a more comprehensive perspective.

The Zero period, again being characterized by continental borrowing focuses on the Latin that is within Anglo-Saxon, much before the Anglo-Saxon peoples settled in England. There is a distinctive interaction between Germanic people and the Romans. This is an example of how languages come together and despite the possibly negative impacts, there is a constructive element where words are combined and create new sounds that have related meanings; it expands the languages, contracts them, and in the interest of English, creates them. The Zero Period is particularly interesting for the linguistic history of infinity because it hones in on the shifting of the Anglo-Saxon language which is a critical influence of English.

The Norman Conquest of the year 1066 is of the most significant events in the development of English. Because of the French Conquest of England, English becomes a language with a unique duality. It is basically a hybridization of French and Anglo-Saxon that virtually removes the Germanic base. Eventually the influence of French on English becomes so pervasive that modern English speakers are detached from Anglo-Saxon completely. This explains how infinity moved into English from the French.

The various uses of the term infinity after discussing its lineage in terms of English history is critical to understand the implications the word has on the societal understanding of the complexity of the meaning of the term. Basically, infinity has developed in an interesting manner that is eclectic in its uses.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest usage of the word infinity is in Chaucer's Boethius De Consol which is written in Anglo-Saxon. “Al thogh þat the lyf of it be strechched with infinite of tyme, yit algates nis it no swych thing (Oxford, Chaucer).” Chaucer uses the word infinite to conceptualize the expanses of time. This is critical for the inception of infinite into the English language. This is because it is making an appearance in the popular literature of the period. This indicates that Chaucer is creating meaning for concepts that were previously not communicated, or it basically providing clarity for those particular concepts. For example, it is a more unifying term than forever. By which I mean, infinity is a much more universal concept in terms of mathematics, while forever seems to have more of a spiritual or social elemental base.

The Oxford English dictionary also references Chaucer as being the first to use the word eternity, also, like infinite, in his Boethius De Consol, “God is eterne lat vs considere þan what is eternite (Oxford, eternity).” While Chaucer uses infinity to describe time, he uses eternity to describe God. Infinity seems to have a much more scientific base, while the term eternity is associated with God. The fact that Chaucer is the first to publish these words in 1374, and use the similar meanings to describe different concepts sheds light on the interchangeability but also the specific uses of infinite.

The term infinity has taken on a life that is particular of it own ranging from scientific uses to religious. The breadth of infinity in terms of its development in the modern English language deals primarily with its varying uses as mentioned before. It is a constantly shifting word that gives the language a history that has a massive scope in terms of meaning and uses.

The mathematical symbol of infinity “∞” is used to describe values that a mathematician is not capable of imagining. So infinity is more of a conceptual term that must be understood, rather than completely solved. John Monaghan writes:

What does it mean to say that someone has an understanding, or a concept',

of infinity? The most basic level of understanding might be a cognizance

of non-terminating processes such as the continuous subdivision of a line,

non-terminating sequences such as the natural numbers or the possibility

of perpetual continuation of any operation. An understanding of infinity

might also exist as a cognizance of unbounded collections (Monaghan, 240).

Monaghan is speaking about the complication of such infinite expressions of math, which without the concept and ultimately, the word infinity describing many processes would be if not impossible, much more difficult to communicate.

There is a religious element to the word infinite when attempting to understand the concept of God and the human experience with God. Jerome Gellman writes, “Let us abbreviate that this into saying that these religions teach that God is infinite (Gellman, 53).” In Gellman’s interpretation of experiencing God’s infinity he is attempting to discredit any believers claim that they have experienced God because he is infinite. The language Gellman uses to write about God, in particular the word infinity proves to be quite complicated to understand philosophically, however, without the clarifying qualities of the term infinity it would be even more complicated to even communicate the concept. Gellman goes on to say, “In that case, [the possibility of God] in order for it to be God, one was perceiving, one would have to be perceiving a being who was correctly described by that description. And since the description includes infinity one would have to be experiencing an infinite being (Gellman, 54).”

Gellman in his article is discussing God in terns of infinity from a philosophical lens. Without the term infinity and its various forms, he would not be capable of having such a comprehensive discussion about God in that sense. In fact, the term infinity makes it possible for one to understand a monotheistic God. More specifically, the Christian religion does not have a pantheon of gods and goddesses like many ancient religions because God is an absolute god who is infinite. The ancient pagan Greeks for instance, hypothetically, would have a complicated time perhaps without a word like infinity to clarify the world around them. So, they would develop pantheons composed of deities that have particular attributes that with the other deities compose all of the concepts of the universe, collectively. In retrospect, in a monotheistic religion like Christianity where infinity is a word readily available, an absolute, infinite God can be discussed and more importantly described.

The term infinity and its various forms have also made an incredibly thorough impact on popular culture, fitting nicely into love songs for instance. The Xx, a melodic rock band from the United Kingdom, has a song entitled, quite naturally, Infinity. The writer of the lyrics tries to conceptualize their hopes for a romantic relationship with a person. The chorus makes use of infinity,

“Wish the best for you

Wish the best for me

Wished for infinity

If that ain't me (The Xx, Infinity).”

The lyrics here are about the turmoil of an infinite or eternal longing for another person. The chorus is basically the typical broken-heart lyrics, but they are special because they can make use of the term infinity.

Most children in the United States would easily associate the line, “To infinity and beyond” with the character Buzz Light-Year from the endearing 1994 computer generated film Toy Story by Pixar. The film is about the secret lives that all of a child's toys live when no people are watching. They develop complete and functional, while incredibly hilarious, societies in their respective spaces. The character Buzz-Light-Year is a space patrolling officer toy, who wields a laser beam, pilots a star-ship, and in the interest of this paper, speaks about infinity. The language Light-Year uses is quite the conundrum because infinity itself is a concept difficult to grasp, but to go beyond infinity is an absolutely philosophical marvel. Perhaps what Light-Year means is that he is able to patrol the universe in a much more comprehensive manner than one would initially think. Perhaps the world he is from, considering it is not Earth, has developed String-Theory much more and he is able to move in between fabrics of space that we cannot see, but only speculate about. So Light-Year is able to move through an infinite universe, and beyond that, perhaps to others in a Multiverse.

Whether the term be used in literature, music, religion, or mathematics, it is clear that infinity has its feet planted strongly in the English language. The movements throughout European history that basically deliver the word infinity to the modern English language are critical because they make very subtle changes to the actual world, but tits uses are continually expanding. There is even an infinity-pool now, where a small pool has an opposing current that pushes against the swimmer, making the pool seem infinite.







Works Cited

Baugh, Albert C. A History of the English Language. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1957. Print.

Monaghan, John. "Young People' Ideas of Infinity." Educational Studies in Mathematics48.2/3 (2001):239-57. Web.

Gellman, Jerome I. "Experiencing God's Infinity." American Philosophical Quaterly 31.No.1 (1994):53-54. Web.

The Xx. "Infinity Lyrics." Songlyrics.com. 21 Nov. 2011. Web. 4 May 2012.<http://www.songlyrics.com/the-xx/infinity-lyrics/>.

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Comments 2 comments

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tobusiness 4 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

This is long, but so very interesting, we take languages for granted, but it's so incredible when we look at where certain words originated from, how the way in which we use them may or may not have changed down the years.

I like the the way you described the difference between eternal and infinity. Brilliant piece of work, I enjoyed reading this very much, looking forward to reading more of you work.


Jawanza profile image

Jawanza 4 years ago from Bronx, NY Author

Thank you so much. This was actually one of my least favorite works. But thanks!

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