What’s in a number name?

What’s in a name?” , Shakespeare’s Juliet famously asked. “That which we call a rose, By any other name would smell as sweet“, she reasoned.  Obviously, no one can contradict that logic – a rose is not gonna smell different if we were to rename it, nor would a skunk start emitting fragrances,  by being called a rose.

But what about number names? Do the names of numbers mean anything? Does the naming system have any significance or are they random sounds picked on a whim by our ancestors? To find out, first let us check out on number names in different languages from various regions.

japanesezuluarabic malayspanish

spanish

 

assamese bangla
hindi punjabi

 

tamil
kannadamalayalam          

telugu

Tabulating, we can compare.

 Language Name for ten Name for thirty Name for thirty nine Literal translation for ‘thirty nine’
Arabic asarah thalathin tset wathalathin Nine and thirty
Spanish dieh triente Triente y neuve Thirty and nine
Malay sepuluh Digah puluh diga puluh sembilan Thirty- nine
Japanese juu San juu San juu kyu Three tens and nine
Zulu ishumi Amashumi amathathu Amashumi amathathu nesishiyagalilunye Thirty- nine
Assamese dos tis unchalis One less than forty
Bangla das tris unchalis One less than forty
Hindi das tees unchalis One less than forty
Punjabi das tih untih One less than forty
Kannada hattu muvattu muvattombattu Three tens -nine
Tamil pathu mupathu mupathonpadu Three tens -nine
Telugu padi muppai Muppai thommidi Thirty nine
Malayalam pathu muppathu Mupathi onpathu Three tens -nine

Interesting, isn’t it? Some languages display an intrinsic knowledge of the base ten place value system, while some others seem to have just ‘named’ their numbers.  Even among those using the place value system, some have ‘names’ for their tens (like Arabic) while in some others, even the tens resonate  their value (like in Japanese).

Reflecting, there is much to read into this beyond names. These names tell us about the cultures,  the level of understanding and advancement the ancient people of these cultures had reached with respect to Math. It also shows that even a universally uniform concept like Math, is perceived differently by  different people. Further, if your word for say sixty four says it is six tens and four, the place value system is imbibed into your consciousness from the time you hear the language as a baby. Do native speakers of such languages fare better at Math? There are researchers who believe so, though much more work would be needed to come to such a conclusion.

For now, you could find out how more  languages treat their numbers – starting with languages spoken by your friends.

 

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