Tag Archives: Nathan Bryce

Improving Your Memory: The Major System

The Major System (also called the phonetic number system or phonetic mnemonic system) is a mnemonic technique used to help you remember numbers and number sequences. In my opinion, it is the strongest and easiest system to use for all types of numbers.

It works by converting numbers first into consonant sounds, then into words by adding vowels. The words can then be remembered more easily than the numbers, especially when using other mnemonic rules which call for the words to be visual and emotive.

This idea of using sounds to replace numbers was first published in 1648 by Stanislaus Mink von Wenusheim who wrote a work entitled Relatio Novissima ex Parnasso de Arte Meminiscentiae. Over the next two hundred years a number of other people came up with variations on this theme. But it wasn’t until the 1840’s that the English system was standardized by the leading memory expert of that era, Major Bartłomiej Beniowski, a Polish refugee to London who is said to have spoken 18 languages. His ideas were published in his book, Handbook of Phrenotypics for Teachers and Students.

In the Major System, each digit is mapped onto a number of consonants. Vowels and the consonants w, h and y are ignored and can be used as ‘fillers’ to make up sensible words from the resulting consonant sequences. The most popular mapping, and set of hooks for remembering it, is:

0

s, z, soft c

“z” is the first letter of zero. The other letters have a similar sound.

1

d, t, th

“d”, “t” have 1 downstroke and sound similar

2

n

“n” has 2 downstrokes

3

m

“m” has 3 downstrokes; “m” looks like a “3” on its side

4

r

“4” and “R” are almost mirror images of each other; last letter of four

5

l

“L” is the Roman numeral for 50; imagine the 5 as a book end (L)

6

j, sh, soft ch, dg, zh, soft g

a script “j” has a lower loop; “g” is almost a 6 flipped over

7

k, hard c, hard-ch, hard g, q, qu, ng

capital “K” contains 2 sevens

8

f, v

script “f” resembles a figure-8; “v” sounds similar

9

b, p

“p” is a mirror-image 9; “b” sounds similar and resembles a rotated 9

Each digit maps to a set of similar sounds with similar mouth and tongue positions.

As you try to figure out this phonetic system, don’t forget that we’re talking about mapping consonant sounds to form words, not the actual spelling of the words. Therefore:

  • action would encode the number 762, not 712
  • ghost would be 701
  • enough would be 28 because the gh in enough is pronounced like an f

Similarly, double letters are disregarded. The word missile is mapped to 305, not 3005. To encode 3005 one would use something like mossy sail.

Often the mapping is compact. Hindquarters, for example, translates unambiguously to 2174140, which amounts to 7 digits encoded by 12 letters, and can be easily visualized.

Below is a list of the nouns I use to remember the numbers 0 through 100. Because I wanted an immediate association with number, I committed these to memory using good old-fashioned flash cards, with the number on one side and the noun on the other.

0

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

0

Zoo

Tie

Noah

Ma

Rye

Law

Shoe

Cow

Ivy

Bee

1

Toes

Tot

Tin

Tomb

Tire

Towel

Dish

Tack

Dove

Tub

2

Nose

Net

Nun

Name

Nero

Nail

Notch

Neck

Knife

Knob

3

Mice

Mat

Moon

Mummy

Mower

Mule

Match

Mug

Movie

Mop

4

Rose

Rod

Rain

Ram

Rower

Roll

Roach

Rock

Roof

Rope

5

Lace

Lot

Lion

Loom

Lure

Lily

Leech

Log

Lava

Lip

6

Cheese

Sheet

Chain

Chum

Cherry

Jail

Choo-Choo

Chalk

Chef

Ship

7

Case

Cot

Coin

Comb

Car

Coal

Cage

Coke

Cave

Cob

8

Fez

Fit

Phone

Foam

Fur

File

Fish

Fog

Fife

Fob

9

Bus

Bat

Bone

Bum

Bear

Bell

Beach

Book

Puff

Pipe

10

Disease

To read the table, the first position of a number is in the left vertical column, the second position of a number is found in the top horizontal row. Thus, the number 14 is tire, 52 is lion, and 100 is disease.

Of course you are free to use any words that make sense to you. If you want to find words for numbers that are larger than two digits, one great resource is found at www.rememberg.com. Just type in a number and they’ll give you a list of possible words.