“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.
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.