Large language models and mnemonics

The Major mnemonic system encodes numbers as words in order to make them easier to remember. Digits correspond to consonant sounds (not spellings) as explained here. You can use the system ad hoc, improvising an encoding of a word as needed, or you can memorize canonical encodings of numbers, also known as pegs.

Pegs have couple advantages. For one, they are eventually faster. Rather than search for an encoding, you recall a predetermined association. For another, pegs are better for memorizing numbered lists. To recall the nth item in a list, pull up the one-and-only image associated with that number and recall what you associated with it.

Coming up with encodings for most numbers is easy, but for a few holdouts it’s challenging. I created a personal list of pegs for numbers up to 1000, and a few of these are idiosyncratic, such as names of people who are not well known and some bend the rules of the Major system.

I decided to try the ChatGPT and Google Bard large language models to see whether they could help me find pegs that I could share with a general audience, free of obscure references.

Asking directly about the Major system

ChatGPT and Google Bard both seems to have some idea of the Major mnemonic system. As part of its reply to one of my prompts, Google Bard returned this:

    0: S, Z, soft C
    1: D, T, TH
    2: N, L, M
    3: M
    4: R
    5: L
    6: J, SH, soft CH, DG
    7: K
    8: P
    9: H

which is correct, except for 8 and 9, and some incorrect alternatives for 2.

When I asked ChatGPT for “Major mnemonic system encoding table” it returned a correct table. But when I asked it for encodings of numbers, it used different rules. For example, it seemed to systematically use M for 2.

I asked both systems

Find a word that encodes the number 792 in the Major memory system

ChatGPT came back with KNP and GNP. These aren’t words, and it seems ChatGPT might have dyslexia.

Bard said

There is no word in the English language that encodes the number 792 in the Major memory system. The closest word is “Sink”, but it only encodes the digits 7 and 9.

This was meant to be an easy question since there are common English words to encode 792, such as cabin. Neither system came up with good responses to the numbers I found challenging, and it may be that there simple are no English words with the desired sequence of sounds.

Before moving on, I wanted to mention one response from Google Bard that I found amusing. When I asked

Find a word that encodes 345 using the Major mnemonic system

Bard responded with

… The encoded number 345 is therefore MERLE.

However, there is no word in the English language that is spelled exactly as MERLE. However, there are a few words that are similar, such as Merry, Mettle, and Melt.

If you are looking for a word that is spelled exactly as MERLE, you may need to create a new word. For example, you could create the word Merlin, which is a name that is often associated with magic and wisdom.

Asking for sounds

The Major system is not well known, so I didn’t expect a direct approach to be that helpful. Next I tried asking for words with particular sequences of sounds rather than asking directly about the Major system.

When I asked both systems

Find a word containing the consonant sounds k, b, and n, in that order

ChatGPT came back with cabin and Bard said

There is no word in the English language that contains the consonant sounds k, b, and n in that order. The closest word is “knob”, but the n sound is pronounced as “ng” in this word.

So the point goes to GPT on that one.

Both systems did poorly on the numbers I found a hard time finding pegs for, possibly because there aren’t any (or many) English words with the specified sounds. With easier questions, the results were mixed.

When I asked

Find a word with the sounds g, r, and f

I was thinking giraffe. ChatGPT returned graf and Bard returned graft.

When I asked

Find a word with sounds l, f, and b

I was thinking, for example, lifeboat. But ChatGPT came back with

A word that contains the consonant sounds “l,” “f,” and “b” is “elfishly.”

and Bard replied

The word “blurb” contains the sounds l, f, and b in that order.


Both systems did well when I asked directly for the phonetic spelling of a word. So I tried to get both systems to come up with lifeboat by asking

Words whose IPA phonetic spellings contain l, f, and b

Bard found words that had some of these letters but not all. When I was more specific, asking

Words whose IPA phonetic spellings contain each of the letters l, f, and b

the results weren’t better.

ChatGPT, on the other hand, came up with affleb, triflingly, bluff, lifeboat, and fallopian. When I asked the more specific question, adding “each of”, ChatGPT returned alphabet, fulbright, bubluous, flyable, and belltry. When I added “in that order” to the prompt, ChatGPT said there are no such words, despite having some up with several such words a moment earlier.

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2 thoughts on “Large language models and mnemonics

  1. William Tanksley

    LLMs don’t see our alphabet when they’re reading or writing … they only see their tokenized input and output, where the tokens combine multiple letters (this is necessary to map the questions and answers into the vectors and matrices they think in). So you can’t expect them to get letters, spelling, and so on right, apart from plugins that CAN see the individual letters in a word.

    You could do it with a plugin that’s specific to the major system, of course, and that would let the LLM’s creativity then take off after generating the correct mapping.

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