This weekend I had to enter an alphabetic passcode on a numeric keypad. The keypad used the same letter-to-digit convention as a phone, but the letters were not printed on the keypad. That made me think about how much better the Major system is.
I wondered what phone keypads would look like if they used the Major memory system, and so I made the image below.
The Major memory system is a way of encoding numbers as words to make them easier to memorize. The system associates a consonant sound with each digit; you’re free to insert any vowels you like. For example, if you wanted to memorize 745, you might encode it as gorilla.
Note that gorilla decodes to 745 and not 7455 because the word has only one L sound, even though it is spelled with two Ls.
One nice feature of the Major system is that if you multiply a number by 10, you can pluralize its mnemonic. For example, a possible mnemonic for 7450 is gorillas.
The Major system emphasizes sounds because humans remember sounds more easily than symbols. If you have a photographic memory for symbols, just memorize the digits and don’t bother with any mnemonic system.
Some of the sounds associated with digits are not represented by a single letter in English and so the keypad above contains a few IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) symbols. The number 1 is encoded by any of the sounds “t”, “d”, or “th.” The IPA symbol θ represents the th sound in think and the ð represents the th sound in this. The symbol ŋ as a possible encoding for 2 represents the ng sound in sing. And the number 6 can be encoded as one of several similar sounds: ch, sh, soft g, or soft z.
The conventional phone keypad looks simpler: 2 = A, B, or C, 3 = D, E, or F, etc. It’s the kind of thing James Scott would call “legible,” something that looks simple on paper and warms a bureaucrat’s heart, but doesn’t necessarily work well in practice. The sounds associated with the letters for a given digit have nothing in common, so a number can be represented by dissimilar sounds, and similar sounds do not represent the same number.
Encoding telephone numbers as words is rarely possible using the conventional keypad letters. Phone numbers that do correspond to memorable words are highly valued. Every letter has to correspond to a digit, and it matters how the word is spelled.
The Major system is much more flexible since you’re free to supply vowels as you wish, and you can choose from a wide variety of words that spell a single consonant sound in different ways.