Why Do We Write Numbers Backwards?

Some readers will know the answer to this question. Others may be puzzled by its premise. Until very recently I’d have been numbered amongst these others. But you’re never too old to shift perspective, as I was lately reminded by stumbling on a realisation: something we all probably do numerous times everyday is in fact rather odd.

The puzzle started as one that was not about ‘us’ but about ‘them’. I’m sure most people will know that whereas in English and other European languages we write from left to right across the page, in some other languages, like Arabic, the writing goes in the opposite direction – from right to left.

So a passage of Arabic looks like this:

الطائرات #التركية تستهدف وتدمر #معبد عين دارة الشهير في #عفرين. يعد المعبد نموذجاً لعمارة المعابد في عصر الحديد وقد بني على ثلاثة مراحل بين 1300ق.م-740 ق.م. خسارة كبيرة تضاف للخسائر المادية والبشرية التي شهدتها سوريا خلال السنوات السبع الماضية. وخسارة لنا كآثاريين.

If you’re not a reader of Arabic, you won’t understand a word of that – except the dates. And when you think about how they are written, you may find it odd: the Arabic text definitely flows in the ‘wrong’ direction but the years are written the ‘right’ way round.

How come? Is that because the passage happens to be quoting a date from the Gregorian calendar? No, the Islamic date, and all other numbers, are written in that same direction. Speaking of calendars, though, the passage cited appears to be giving a date range that would appear to go ‘our way’ – but that is just because the dates here are BC!

So the Arabic word order is consistent, but, within it, they write their numbers backwards? Is that because they have adopted the Western convention, perhaps for some historical or convenience reason?

At this point, those of us who write words with a Roman script should remind ourselves where our written numbers come from. In the West we abandoned the effort of calculating sums like DCXLII + XVIII some time ago, in favour a more elegant system.

In fact, our numerical system is, as everyone is at least dimly aware, of Arabic origin. That means not just the symbols, 1,2,3 … but also the longer numbers involving a succession of symbols. And how do we in the West do calculations involving several numbers, as in totting up the bill for even the simplest transactions?

Imagine getting a bill like this to pay:

1

100

1000 +

_______

3000

If we were adding up like we write, see how drastically we could get over-charged!

It turns out, then, that when we want to work out what the amount really is we have to ‘think in Arabic’:

1

100

1000

_______

1101

 

And that’s all I wanted to say in this post. Except, it is perhaps worth noting that the numerical system we have taken over from mathematicians in Baghdad (a city that was home to flourishing civilisation centuries before North America was discovered by Europeans) can be traced further back still. It was mathematicians on the Indian subcontinent who first developed it, apparently, some 500 years before the year dot in the Gregorian calendar.

It feels to me like there could be a moral or two in this story.

 

27540164_2070576062959377_4586466387066309041_n

The Arabic passage quoted above was a caption to this image. Translation: ‘Horrible news! Turkish warplanes targeted & destroyed the famous Temple of AinDara in Afrin. The Iron Age Syro-Hittite temple was built in 3 phases over more than five centuries (1300-740 B.C).It’s a huge loss to history, to archaeology, and to Syria.’ [Via www.hawarnews.com]

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