History for the fantasy buff: Number systems, part 3

One last post on number systems. I’ve talked about Roman and Arabic numerals, and base 10 versus other bases used worldwide through early history. But I’ve skipped over the East. This isn’t history, exactly. I’m talking about things that are true in the modern day, although I’m sure they’ve been true for a long time.

Chinese number words, such as “si” for 4 and “qi” for 7, are shorter than English number words. Most can be uttered in less than a quarter of a second, while some of our English number words take a third of a second. Because of this, Chinese speakers can, on average, recall from short term memory a longer list of numbers than English speakers can.

Also, in English the way we name our numbers is a bit awkward. After ten, we have eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen. But in China, Japan, and Korea, those numbers are (in their languages): ten-one, ten-two, ten-three. After twenty, it’s two-tens-one, two-tens-two, etc. This is so much more logical that Asian children learn to count at an earlier age than American children.

They also add more easily. What’s twenty-two plus thirty-seven? Might it be easier if I say what’s two-tens-two plus three-tens-seven? If you’re accustomed to the latter way of speaking, addition is just grouping the tens and ones. It’s five-tens-nine. The American way requires an additional layer of translation before you can do the math. No wonder we’re slower!

And did you know the Japanese do long multiplication differently too? (Hat tip to Omar Zaidi for this video.) Check this out. It blows me away. I’m not sure you even need to know your times tables to use this method.

Not that I think any of this is directly relevant to fantasy writing or fantasy worlds, except in this oblique sense: different cultures have solved what appear to be universal problems (counting, adding, multiplying) in some remarkably different and creative ways.

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3 Responses to History for the fantasy buff: Number systems, part 3

  1. Jessi Gage says:

    This video blew my mind. Like, there’s brains on the ceiling. Way cool, Amy. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Lenora Rose says:

    English isn’t alone in this. In Welsh, the names for 11 through 20 are translated:

    11: one-on-ten,
    12: two-ten (No “on”)
    13: three-on-ten
    14: Four-on-ten
    15: five-ten (No “on” – which is just as well, considering what follows)
    16: One-on-five-ten
    17: two-on-five-ten
    18: two-nines (! deunaw is also pronounced rather close to “die now”)
    20: twenty (No reference back)

    and after that it’s based on adding on to 20. (Forty is of course two-twenties)

    Oh, and sometimes gendered variants…

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