If you ever traveled abroad, you might have found that it’s not so hard to communicate and fulfill your needs thanks to the familiarity of numbers. Arabic numbers can tell you how much a meal can cost - you just need to point at it if you don’t know how to say the word and then pay accordingly. Easy, right?
But why exactly is this the case? Why do you almost never need to learn new numerals or counting systems to make simple transactions in foreign countries where everything - from the cultural customs to the alphabet might be completely unfamiliar?
1, 2, 3… the history behind the Arabic numerals
Some technologies are just too good to pass on, and when this is the case they can quickly be adopted almost everywhere. Think of the wheel, or even writing. Numbers are no exception, and the simple design and infinite potential behind Arabic numerals had clearly something to do with their extensive adoption by radically different cultures in all corners of the world.
Every day, we use numbers without giving them a second thought, but the history of the development and adoption of the numeral system we usually call Arabic or Hindu-Arabic takes us to the first centuries of our current era. Originally developed by Indian mathematicians, the key to understanding what’s so special about this system lies not in the arbitrary symbols used to represent the numerals but in the logic behind it.
In fact, the actual numerals used weren’t the same everywhere - and still aren’t. While the numerals most of us are familiarized with (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 0) became an international standard, the original Arabic numerals (۱، ۲، ۳، ۴، ۵، ۶، ۷، ۸، ۹، ۰), as well as Indian and Chinese numerals are still in widespread use.
What makes this system so efficient and innovative is the fact that it is a positional decimal numeral system that includes a zero. This last detail isn’t insignificant, as the development of a ‘zero’ is a crucial concept to further both mathematical and abstract thought - and many civilizations around the world that held mathematics in high regard happened to come across the idea independently.
Are there different systems?
The Hindu-Arabic system not only incorporated zero as a number, but it also developed what’s called a ‘base-10’ decimal system in which each column represents ten times the previous one. In layman's terms, this means that each additional number written in front of the other represents ten times the previous one.
We already know this intuitively, since we learn this soon in elementary school, but most people - save mathematicians, of course - rarely think about how numbers really work. But the importance of this system lies in that - through a disarmingly simple concept - it helped both common people and scientists straightforwardly make calculations of any kind, something that most other systems in use at the time couldn’t compete with.
Another thing that helped disseminate this system even further was the fact that Indian mathematicians freely shared their work with the rest of the world, something that often isn’t so common when novel and useful technologies are developed. Thanks to this generosity, the system was fully adopted in the Islamic world around the 9th century, where it was perfected by many mathematicians and early scientists that saw enormous potential in the logic behind it.
Through the prosperous Arab world, it soon reached many other places like Europe, Africa, and Southeast Asia. Europeans, as most of us already know, helped spread the system even more through their colonies and world-spanning trade networks.
However, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t other numeral systems in use, and some are even preferred by certain fields, like computer programming or advanced math. The Hexadecimal system, for example, is a base-16 numeral system that is extensively used today in computers, as it is useful to represent binary-coded values in a more human-friendly way.
Funnily enough, traditional Chinese units of measurement were also base-16, and the Chinese abacus was designed to make calculations in this system. While some people have campaigned in favor of utilizing a hexadecimal system instead of a decimal one - seems crazy, right? - luckily for us no one managed to displace the pragmatic Hindu-Arabic system.
However, this didn’t stop a Swedish inventor called John W. Nystrom from suggesting the use of hexadecimal time, subdividing a day into 16 equal “tims” or hours each day.
What’s stopping us from adopting a single language or alphabet?
While mathematics follows a strict logic that can be replicated independently of its representation, and in this sense, it can be thought of as a sort of universal language, written and spoken languages are a completely different story. Languages are tightly connected to their history, users, and specific sounds.
No single alphabet could manage to faithfully represent all languages on Earth, and close attempts at a universal alphabet like the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) aren’t simple enough for straightforward and worldwide adoption. Besides, alphabets and languages are a vital part of cultural identity.
Ripping them out for the sake of simplicity might do far more harm than good. And translators would lose their jobs! Jokes aside, diversity is part of what makes us human, and there’s no unique solution to any problem - be it communicating with our peers, leaving useful advice for the future, solving mathematical problems, or just being able to exchange goods with our neighbors.
If you enjoyed our article and still want to learn more about the meaning and history behind words, proverbs, or popular acronyms, check out our blog! We will keep uploading interesting facts and trivia about language.