Number Words and the Human Body

Number Words and the Human Body There are many possible ways to organize a
number system for counting. A binary or base-2 number system uses only
two different symbols to encode all numbers which is very useful for modern computation. There are also plenty of uses for base-8,
or “octal” systems, and base-16 or “hexadecimal” systems. Our number words reflect a base-10 or “decimal”
system but there’s no reason we couldn’t just as well have ended up with a different
kind of system. Or is there? There are many kinds of number systems represented
in the languages of the world, but by far the most common ones are quinary (base 5)
decimal (base 10) and vigesimal (base 20). These systems are not all that mathematically
elegant. It would be better to work with a duodecimal,
or base 12 system. 12 can be neatly divided by 2, 3, 4, and 6
leaving use with fewer fraction issues. So most cultures didn’t settle on the systems
they did because they’re the best, but because of what we happened to have on hand—our
fingers, and in the case of base 20, our toes too. How do we know this? Sometimes the words themselves tell us. Many number words around the world are etymologically
derived from words for hands, fingers, and toes. In various indigenous languages from South
America, to Africa to New Guinea , the word for 6 and 7 are basically “hand plus one”
“hand plus two.” 10 will be something like “all hands or “hand
hand,” 11 will be “foot plus one” or even “big toe”. 20 might be “whole person” and 30 ” whole
person plus the hands of another person” It can be harder to see the connection in
English but there are traces to be found when looking at the whole Indo-European language
family, which includes a wide array of languages as varied as English, Sanskrit, Latin, Greek,
Lithuanian, and Russian. The number words in these languages can be
traced back to a single, ancient source language where the word for five was something close
to “penkwe” this became “pañca” in Sanskrit, “quinque” in Latin, “pente”
in Greek, penki in Lithuanian, pjat’ in Russian and “fimf” in the Germanic ancestor
that became “five” in English. One of the meanings of that ancient penkwe
was “fist.” Though the body references in counting often
make their way into the language through hands and fingers, it doesn’t necessarily result
in a system based around 5s. The Oksapmin language of New Guinea has a
base-27 system. Number words start at the thumb of one hand,
and then move around the top of the body making 27 stops along the way. The word for 6 is “wrist”, 12 is “ear”
14 is “nose” 16 is “ear on the other side.” Just because our fingers are convenient for
counting doesn’t mean everyone will count on them in the same way. There have also been languages with a base-8
system. Using, instead of the fingers, the four spaces
between the fingers. And the ancient Mesopotamians actually had
a base 12 counting strategy by using the thumb of one hand to count off the 3 joints in in
each of the other fingers. If you count off each twelve with the fingers
on the other hand you get to 5×12, or 60. 12s and 60s became the basis for the way we
measure time, measure angles, and the locations on the globe where we live. Our biology may tend to lead us down certain
well worn paths, but it doesn’t have to limit us.


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