# Why are number characters universal?

Through my world travels, I have noticed that in most countries, they use the same characters for numbers as we do in the western world. I know that some of these countries have their own language and in that language are their own characters for numbers, but they still use ours most of the time (i.e. Thai).

My friends and I have conjectured that this might have somehting to do with the spreading of technology, similar to the internet forcing all countries to use these letters in web addresses.

Does anyone have a better idea, or even a way to find out for sure?

They are not universal – refer, if you will, to the Devanagari or some of the other Indian scripts, where numbers are represented differently than the common usage.

In point of fact, though, they are nearly universal for two reasons:

1. The Roman alphabet has become the standard international medium of conveying written information. Means of representing languages using other scripts in it have been adopted by official or common-consent means in many countries, e.g., China, where the Pinyin system is official.

2. Many of the major scripts use the Arabic numerals as their representations for numbers. Cyrillic script, for example, includes 36 uppercase and 36 lowercase letters – and the familiar ten numerals. Arabic script, much the same. Therefore they already have “a leg up” on any other system. (My impression is that modern Greek uses Arabic numerals rather than the letters-as-numerals system of Classical Greek; can anyone confirm this?)

There are two reasons: the system, and the notation.

Arabic script and Devanagari use the same system, but different notation. In countries using those scripts, I suspect that 0,1,2,3, etc., is becoming used more widely because visitors reading European languages find them easier to use.

The main competing system is the traditional Chinese one, used in Chinese and Japanese. In their case, the Hindu-Arabic system is winning out, because it’s an easier system to calculate with.

Now, you can use the Hindu-Arabic system with Chinese notation (just adding a 0 character for the zero that is not present in the Chiinese system – and that sometimes done. However, the Chinese and Japanese are also influenced by the notation used in English and other European languages, and so you also find the 0,1,2,3 notation gaining a hold in China and Japan.

This is exactly right, although the definition of “technology” is a little different than the one we’re used to, the one that refers to electronic devices.

The real technology is international trade, backed up by the printing press, and forced by imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, and globalization.

All can be thought of technologies. They just happened several hundred years ago.

The underlying process, however, is exactly the same.

In Japan, the Chinese numbers are still used a lot, though western numerals have been used extensively for a long time. The easiest way to think about it is the difference between writing “235” and “two hundred and thirty five” in English. However, in some situations like when writing dates and very often on restaurant menus the Chinese characters will be used in lieu of the western characters. E.g. 235 should be: two-hundred-three-ten-five
, but is writen instead as: two-three-five.

Just my assumption, but a foreign number system is fairly easy to learn, as compared to a foreign alphabet or language. Since it’s easier, it is more likely that anyone with a reason to use a system other than his or her native system will learn how and actually use it.

Lots of us unilingual people have good reasons to learn other languages, but those reasons don’t amount to enough to offset the trouble of learning them. If learning French were as easy for me as learning the Arabic numeral system, I’d have definitely devoted the time to become fluent.

I guess there’s an assumption included in the above: That there are many more good reasons for those not familiar with Arabic numerals to learn them than there are reasons for anyone to learn any of the other systems out there. Those reasons have been stated in the other posts on this thread.

My understanding is that this method for representing numbers (and I can’t remember what it’s called at the moment) developed in India, and only once. It was adopted worldwide because it’s simply a very good system for representing numbers in many cases - it makes calculation significantly easier, and it’s very compact. The numbers, being pure symbols, are glyphs that adapt well to many different languages - I see “235” and can read it as “two hundred thirty-five” while a Spanish speaker reads it as “ciento trenta y cinco” and a Mandarin speaker as “er bai san shi wu” - it’s not strongly tied to a single language, so it exports easily. And I think the digits simply tended to be imported with the system. We could potentially apply the same system to English words - writing numbers like “two-three-five” or “four-zero-zero-eight” but such a system would be immensely cumbersome. In Chinese or Japanese, the characters are compact enough that it would probably work reasonably well to write numbers that way, but there’s simply not a reason to do so: it would be a strange, awkward use of characters (since they normally represent words) to describe numbers, and the bigger cultural shift was importing the number system anyway.