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The Mystery of Language: Numbers

December 22, 2011 Leave a comment

So I’m in Osman’s Continental Supermarket and there’s an Arab couple in there looking for fish because they’ve got Christians coming for Christmas and they aren’t sure exactly what type of fish it is Christians eat at Christmas or something. (They should have asked me. I could have told them: turkey. Anyway, I thought it was Fridays that Christians eat fish? I digress…)

As I head towards the checkout I overhear the husband saying to his wife:

عشرة كيلو ارز 10.99.

(’ashar kilo aruzz, ten ninety-nine.)

I’ve written it that way because it’s exactly how he said it. Thing is, it translates as “Ten kilos of rice, £10.99.” So why is the ten of kilos in Arabic and the ten of pounds in English? It makes obvious sense, but then in other ways it doesn’t. Perhaps it’s just the casual speech of a true bilingual.

Anyway, more importantly, children, since you’re here and you’d like to know – these:

0 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Arabic numbers, right? No! These are Arabic numbers:

٠‎ ١‎ ٢‎ ٣‎ ٤‎ ٥‎ ٦‎ ٧‎ ٨‎ ٩

So if those are real Arabic numbers, what do the Arabs call them? ‘Numbers’, presumably, in much the same we in Yorkshire call Yorkshire Tea ‘tea’ and the Germans get confused about measles. But, no, they call them ‘Indian Numbers’.

Alas, they appear to be just as confused as we are.

० १ २ ३ ४ ५ ६ ७ ८ ९

Yes, those are Indian numbers. What do the Indians call them? I don’t know. Let’s hope it’s just numbers.*

*(For the record, the Oxford English Dictionary suggests you can differentiate between the numbers as used in Europe, the US and elsewhere by using a lower case spelling of arabic – i.e. ‘arabic numerals’ – 1, 2, 3, etc. – as opposed to ‘Arabic numerals’ – ١,‎ ٢,‎ ٣, etc. I don’t know if there’s a name for this convention of de-capitalising adjectives otherwise derived from proper nouns, but it’s one I use generally: spartan  or byzantine rather than Spartan or Byzantine when not used literally: “The Byzantine emperor alone in a spartan room; a Spartan general, a byzantine plan.” No marks for historical accuracy, obviously.)